The side effects of high cholesterol are sometimes hard to identify
A waxy substance in your body, cholesterol can build up in the arteries and cause cardiovascular disease. Learn about good and bad cholesterol; the side effects of high cholesterol, which often have no early symptoms; and how to keep your levels healthy.
The difference between 'good' and 'bad' cholesterol
Cholesterol is made by the liver and travels throughout the bloodstream. We also get cholesterol from certain foods, such as meat and dairy products. All cholesterol isn't bad — our bodies need healthy levels of cholesterol to build cells and make vitamin D and the hormones progesterone and estrogen.
There are two different kinds of cholesterol:
- Low density lipoprotein (LDL): Too much of this "bad" cholesterol can build up in your blood vessels, blocking the flow of blood.
- High density lipoprotein (HDL): This "good" cholesterol helps your body carry LDL back to your liver to filter it out.
LDL cholesterol can build up in coronary arteries and make fatty deposits called plaques. Too much LDL cholesterol or not enough HDL cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease.
Healthy levels of cholesterol
Cholesterol levels are some of the numbers you need to know about your body. Your healthcare provider checks levels of total cholesterol, HDL and LDL, non-HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides (a type of fat in the body) using a blood test called a lipid panel. Healthy cholesterol levels vary by age:
19 and younger
- Total cholesterol — less than 170
- Non-HDL — less than 120
- LDL — less than 100
- HDL — more than 45
- Triglycerides — less than 90
20 and older
- Total cholesterol — 125 to 200
- Non-HDL — less than 130
- LDL — less than 100
- HDL — 40 or higher for men, 50 or higher for women
- Triglycerides — less than 150
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people should have their cholesterol levels checked at least once between ages 9 and 16, again between ages 17 and 21, and then at least every four to six years if you are healthy. If you have diabetes, heart disease, or hereditary cholesterol, you'll need to have your cholesterol checked more often.
Risk factors for high cholesterol
Some risk factors for high cholesterol are beyond your control. Those include your family history of high cholesterol, age, and gender. Other risk factors depend on your lifestyle, weight, and preexisting health conditions. For example, obesity and Type 2 diabetes can increase your risk of high cholesterol.
Lifestyle risk factors for high cholesterol include eating a diet high in saturated and trans fats, not getting enough physical activity, and smoking.
Side effects of high cholesterol
Most of the time, high cholesterol doesn't cause any signs or symptoms, but it's still dangerous. High cholesterol can cause swelling of artery walls and blood clots in the arteries, which can lead to a large blockage and cause a heart attack, coronary heart disease, or stroke. Because high cholesterol rarely has any symptoms, many people don't know they have the condition until a life-threatening event happens or they have their blood levels tested during a checkup with their primary care provider.
Sometimes, extremely high cholesterol can cause symptoms, such as cholesterol deposits on your skin. Known as eruptive xanthomatosis, these painless, yellowish-orange growths or waxy bumps can be mistaken for a rash or warts.
High cholesterol also increases your risk of stroke and heart attack. Someone having a stroke may experience:
- Difficulty speaking
- Facial drooping
- Numbness or weakness on one side of your body
- Sudden, intense headache
- Vision problems in one or both eyes
Symptoms of a heart attack include:
- Chest pain
- Numbness or pain in your left arm
- Shortness of breath
If you experience any of these symptoms, seek emergency medical care right away.
Fortunately, certain lifestyle and behavioral changes can improve your cholesterol. Here are some things you can do:
- Eat a heart-healthy diet. One of the best ways to improve your cholesterol is to reduce the amount of saturated and trans fats you eat. Foods high in saturated and trans fats include red meat, full-fat dairy, and fried foods. Instead, opt for fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and heart-healthy vegetable oils, such as olive, avocado, and sunflower oils.
- Get regular physical activity. Exercise helps increase HDL levels. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week, or a combination of both. Aerobic activities get your heart pumping, so think brisk walking, running, or cycling. If you don't like using cardio machines at the gym, you can still get your heart pumping with other activities, such as turning up the music at home and dancing. As long as you get your heart rate up for a few minutes, it counts.
- Quit smoking. If you smoke or vape, quitting can lower your risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. If you don't smoke, don't start.
- Limit alcohol. Alcohol can raise cholesterol and triglyceride levels. If you're a man, don't drink more than two drinks per day, and if you're a woman, don't drink more than one. One standard drink equals 12 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine, and 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.
A Reid Health primary care provider can help you monitor your cholesterol levels. Let us help you find one.