High blood cholesterol levels
Cholesterol - high; Lipid disorders; Hyperlipoproteinemia; Hyperlipidemia; Dyslipidemia; Hypercholesterolemia
Common medical terms for high blood cholesterol are lipid disorder, hyperlipidemia, or hypercholesterolemia, with the last being the most precise.
There are many types of cholesterol. The ones talked about most are:
- Total cholesterol -- all the cholesterols combined
- High density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol -- often called "good" cholesterol
- Low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol -- often called "bad" cholesterol
- Being overweight
- Lack of exercise
Some health conditions can also lead to abnormal cholesterol, including:
- Kidney disease
- Polycystic ovary syndrome
- Pregnancy and other conditions that increase levels of female hormones
- Underactive thyroid gland
Medicines such as certain birth control pills, diuretics (water pills), beta-blockers, and some medicines used to treat depression may also raise cholesterol levels. Several disorders that are passed down through families lead to abnormal cholesterol and triglyceride levels. They include:
- Familial combined hyperlipidemia
- Familial dysbetalipoproteinemia
- Familial hypercholesterolemia
- Familial hypertriglyceridemia
Smoking does not cause higher cholesterol levels, but it can reduce your HDL (good) cholesterol.
Exams and Tests
A cholesterol test is done to diagnose a lipid disorder. Different experts recommend different starting ages for adults.
- Recommended starting ages are between 20 to 35 for men and 20 to 45 for women.
- Adults with normal cholesterol levels should have the test repeated every 5 years.
- Repeat testing sooner if changes occur in lifestyle (including weight gain and diet).
- Adults with a history of elevated cholesterol, diabetes, kidney problems, heart disease, and other conditions require more frequent testing.
It is important to work with your health care provider to set your cholesterol goals. Newer guidelines steer health care providers away from targeting specific levels of cholesterol. Instead, they recommend different treatments or medicines and doses depending on a person's history and risk factor profile. These guidelines change from time to time as more information from research studies becomes available.
General targets are:
- LDL: 70 to 130 mg/dL (1.81 to 3.37 mmol/L) - lower numbers are better
- HDL: More than 60 mg/dL (1.55 mmol/L) or higher - higher numbers are better
- Total cholesterol: Less than 200 mg/dL (5.18 mmol/L) - lower numbers are better
- Triglycerides: 10 to 150 mg/dL (0.11 to 1.69 mmol/L) - lower numbers are better
If your cholesterol results are abnormal, you may also have other tests such as:
Maybe you've been eating fast food more often than you should, or you're not getting your recommended two-and-a-half hours of exercise each week. Or, it could be that you smoke, or your blood pressure is too high. Well, for whatever reason, you may be concerned about your risk of getting heart disease. Well, a few tests can help you learn that risk, so you can start making healthy lifestyle changes to reduce it. A coronary risk profile is a group of blood tests that measure your cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Why is it important to know these levels? Because if you have too much of these substances in your blood from eating foods like burgers and French fries, they can clog your arteries. Eventually your arteries can become so clogged that you'll have a heart attack or stroke. Men should have their cholesterol tested by the time they're 35. Women should have it checked by age 45. If you have a condition like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, or high blood pressure, have your cholesterol checked now, no matter what your age. To measure your cholesterol, your doctor will give you a blood test. If you're also having your triglyceride level checked, you may be told not to eat or drink anything for 8 to 12 hours before the test. Depending upon your heart risk, the doctor may measure just your total cholesterol level, or your total cholesterol along with your LDL, or bad cholesterol, HDL, or good cholesterol, and triglycerides. If you're of average risk of getting heart disease, your goal is to have total cholesterol of less than 200 milligrams per deciliter, LDL cholesterol lower than 130 milligrams per deciliter, HDL cholesterol higher than 40 milligrams per deciliter if you're a man, or 50 if you're a woman -- the higher the better, and triglycerides of less than 150 also, the lower the better. Although some illnesses, like arthritis, can raise your cholesterol level, generally having high cholesterol means that you're at increased risk for heart disease and stroke. It's a sign you need to work harder to keep your heart healthy. If your cholesterol levels are normal, that's great! That means that you're eating right, you're exercising, and you're taking good care of your health. You don't need to have another cholesterol test for about five years. But if your cholesterol level is high, or you've already got heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes, you'll need to have your cholesterol levels checked more often. Keeping close tabs on your cholesterol and triglyceride levels is one way that you can take charge of your health, and change it for the better.
Steps you can take to improve your cholesterol levels and to help prevent heart disease and a heart attack include:
- Quit smoking. This is the single biggest change you can make to reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke.
- Eat foods that are naturally low in fat. These include whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
- Use low-fat toppings, sauces, and dressings.
- Avoid foods that are high in saturated fat.
- Exercise regularly.
- Lose weight if you are overweight.
Your provider may want you to take medicine for your cholesterol if lifestyle changes do not work. This will depend on:
- Your age
- Whether or not you have heart disease, diabetes, or other blood flow problems
- Whether you smoke or are overweight
- Whether you have high blood pressure or diabetes
You are more likely to need medicine to lower your cholesterol:
- If you have heart disease or diabetes
- If you are at high risk for heart disease (even if you do not yet have any heart problems)
- If your LDL cholesterol is 190 mg/dL (4.92 mmol/L) or higher
Almost everyone else may get health benefits from LDL cholesterol that is lower than 160 to 190 mg/dL (4.14 mmol/L to 4.92 mmol/L).
There are several types of drugs to help lower blood cholesterol levels. The drugs work in different ways. Statins are one kind of drug that lowers cholesterol and has been proven to reduce the chance of heart disease. Other drugs are available if your risk is high and statins do not lower your cholesterol levels enough. These include ezetimibe and PCSK9 inhibitors.
High cholesterol levels can lead to hardening of the arteries, also called atherosclerosis. This occurs when fat, cholesterol, and other substances build up in the walls of arteries and form hard structures called plaques.
Over time, these plaques can block the arteries and cause heart disease, stroke, and other symptoms or problems throughout the body.
Disorders that are passed down through families often lead to higher cholesterol levels that are harder to control.
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Last reviewed on: 1/1/2023
Reviewed by: Michael A. Chen, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team. Editorial update 11/02/2023.