Cholesterol is a fatty substance, primarily produced by the liver, which is essential for many important functions within the body. For example, cholesterol is required to produce hormones and vitamin D, as well as help digestion. The problems come when there are excessive levels of this fat in the blood. Too much cholesterol can clog up the arteries, increasing the risk of serious health problems. However, there are typically no symptoms to accompany high cholesterol, and the first time someone may be aware of having the issue is following a blood test.
There are certain factors that place you more at risk of the condition. These include being overweight, not taking enough exercise, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and eating fatty foods. However, genetics can also play a role, so while leading a healthy lifestyle can help prevent problems and lower cholesterol levels, it does not necessarily exclude you from having high cholesterol.
The Health Dangers from High Cholesterol
Coronary heart disease
The build-up of plaque from fatty acids and the hardening of the artery walls is called atherosclerosis. Over time the extra strain put on the heart to pump the blood through narrowing channels can lead to coronary heart disease. Ultimately this can result in heart failure as the heart muscle get larger to cope with the work required to pump the blood, before weakening as they fail to cope. The heart will not be able to supply oxygen around the body as it should, including to the lungs, resulting in breathlessness.
Heart attack and angina are further conditions associated with too much cholesterol. Blood clots can form over the fatty parts building in the artery walls, completely blocking the artery. When a clot blocks off the supply of blood to the heart, part of the organ’s muscle can soon die, resulting in a heart attack. When arteries have narrowed, and there is a reduction in the level of oxygen reaching the heart, this may result in angina – a dull, tight pain in the chest that can spread to the left arm and neck.
Studies have shown that high cholesterol levels can eventually cause blood clots in the arteries which supply the brain, which can cause a stroke. The loss of blood supply leads to part of the brain dying, which may cause disabilities as a result. A mini-stroke is also a result of a blocked blood vessel, and although its effects are usually temporary, it can be a warning shot for a full stroke unless addressed.
Other health risks from too much cholesterol include:
- Vascular dementia
- Peripheral arterial disease caused by arteries to the lower limbs becoming blocked
- High blood pressure
- Kidney failure
An unhealthy lifestyle can be the reason for problem cholesterol levels. Therefore your doctor will recommend and work with you to make some lifestyle changes. Foods such as sausages, bacon, red meats, full-fat dairy, fatty cheeses, cakes, and biscuits are best avoided. Foods to eat more of include oily fish, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, wholemeal bread, pulses, and vegetable oils. Exercise needs to be added alongside a healthier diet, try to follow the WHO recommendations on exercise. Walking, swimming, and cycling are good exercises to begin with, but advice should be taken from your doctor when starting a new exercise regime. You will be told to quit smoking and reduce alcohol consumption.
If your cholesterol levels do not drop after making suitable lifestyle changes or you are at high risk of a heart attack or stroke, your doctor may recommend medication. One of the most common medicines for high cholesterol are statins which help reduce the amount of cholesterol your body produces. Further options include a cholesterol absorption inhibitor such as ezetimibe or a bile acid sequestrant like cholestyramine. The latter medication stops bile acids from being absorbed into the blood, forcing the liver to take cholesterol from the blood to produce more digestive substances. As with most medications, there can be side effects that should be discussed with your doctor.