Do you have hereditary cholesterol?
If any of your immediate family members have high cholesterol, you could be at risk of developing the disease. But don't stress just yet. Although hereditary high cholesterol is a real concern, your parent's health history doesn't necessarily have to determine your fate.
The ABCs of cholesterol
Cholesterol is a fatty, waxy substance that naturally exists in your body's cells. It helps digest foods, create vitamin D, and produce certain hormones needed to maintain good health.
Cholesterol is made up of two main parts: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). HDL, also known as good cholesterol, helps protect your health. LDL, the bad cholesterol, is what leads to problems.
Certain foods, particularly those with saturated fats, can prompt your body to produce more cholesterol than your body needs. When this happens, the extra cholesterol combines with other substances to form plaque. As plaque builds, it begins to narrow or block your arteries, making it difficult for blood to pass through. Blocked arteries raise your risk for heart attack, stroke, and other serious health problems.
Cholesterol in the family
People who are at average risk of developing high cholesterol can usually avoid problems by making healthy lifestyle choices — eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise. But for those who have hereditary high cholesterol, it doesn't matter what they eat or how often they work out. Their high cholesterol levels are due to a genetic condition known as familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), a disorder inherited from a parent, or in very rare cases, both parents. People with FH need to carefully manage the condition. This often includes taking medication in addition to practicing a healthy lifestyle.
High LDL levels are most often the result of poor diet, lack of exercise, and other lifestyle factors. But people with FH are born with high LDL levels.
In otherwise healthy people, LDL receptor genes help keep LDL in check. The body either uses the LDL, stores it, or eliminates it. For people with FH, a mutated receptor gene is often the cause. This mutation prevents the body from processing LDL as it should, resulting in a faster buildup of LDL in the arteries.
Symptoms of inherited cholesterol
Diagnosing hereditary cholesterol early allows treatment to start before symptoms begin. If you have a parent with FH, genetic testing for the condition is a good idea because many people don't have symptoms of high cholesterol.
When symptoms do occur, you may experience the following:
- A painful or swollen Achilles tendon
- Calf muscle cramping when walking
- Chest pain experienced at an early age
- LDL cholesterol levels higher than 190 mg/dL (160 mg/dL in children)
- Gray, yellow, or white deposits outside of the cornea
- Nonhealing sores on your toes
- Sudden arm or leg weakness, difficulty talking, and other stroke-like symptoms
- Unexplained bumps or lumps around the knees, elbows, or knuckles
- Yellow areas near the eyes
Identifying inherited cholesterol
According to the American Heart Association, 1.3 million Americans have FH, yet only 1 in 10 know they have it. People with untreated FH have a 20-fold higher risk for heart disease, and men are at risk of developing heart disease 10 to 20 years earlier than women. With these stats in mind, early detection and treatment of FH is vital to lowering your risk of developing life-threatening cardiovascular diseases.
Clinicians can detect inherited high cholesterol with the following:
- A physical examination and evaluation of personal and family health history
- Blood tests to measure cholesterol levels
- Genetic testing to look for mutated genes, which are common with FH
Managing high hereditary cholesterol
A healthy lifestyle is essential for managing hereditary cholesterol. Without a healthy diet and regular exercise, controlling FH is more difficult. However, healthy lifestyle choices aren't enough to keep FH under control. Most people with inherited cholesterol issues need to take prescription medicine to manage the condition.
Medications called statins, which help lower LDL and raise HDL cholesterol levels, can effectively manage FH. In the U.S., there are 10 different types of statins clinicians can prescribe to patients with high cholesterol. Sometimes, finding the best one can take time, as each person responds differently to each medication. When statins work effectively, they help reduce cholesterol levels in the blood, which slows the buildup of plaque in the arteries.
Your provider may prescribe other cholesterol-lowering medications, including one that reduces how much cholesterol your intestines absorb, ultimately lessening the amount of cholesterol circulating in your blood.
LDL apheresis is another treatment available, but it's prescribed for only the most extreme cases of inherited high cholesterol. With this therapy, every few weeks you're connected to a machine that removes LDL cholesterol from your blood.
Reducing cholesterol begins now
If hereditary cholesterol problems run in your family, take action today. Work with your provider to keep an eye on your cholesterol. Consider genetic testing and talk about your medication options.
If you do have FH, let your loved ones know so they can also watch their cholesterol and reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. You're never too young to think about FH. In fact, children who have FH can develop dangerously high cholesterol levels at a young age and may need to start taking medication to manage the condition as early as 8 years old. Talk with a pediatrician if you suspect your child might have inherited high cholesterol.
If you or a loved one has hereditary high cholesterol or if you think you might have it, the experts at Reid Health Heart & Vascular Center can help. Find the nearest location today.