Hypercholesterolemia is the medical term used to describe the condition of a person who has elevated cholesterol, a substance with the consistency of wax which resides in the bloodstream. Normal cholesterol levels are indicated for the health of one’s cells, but when hypercholesterolemia makes its appearance, a person is at greater risk of developing heart diseases.
Much like hypertension, hypercholesterolemia does not show any visible symptoms, and it can only be discovered through a blood test. Normally, the test interval for adults is once every five years. However, if doctors suspect signs of high cholesterol, they will require frequent re-testing.
For many years, people have heard about the terms “good” and “bad” associated with cholesterol. The scientific explanation behind this is the following: cholesterol is attached to proteins, which travel through the bloodstream, and the combination between these two is known as “lipoprotein”. Depending on what this lipoprotein carries, a person can have two types of cholesterol in the body:
- Bad cholesterol (which is known as low-density lipoprotein, or LDL for short), which is transported through the body and can build up on the arteries walls.
- Good cholesterol (also known as high-density lipoprotein, or HDL for short), which transports excess cholesterol to the liver.
There are several factors that can contribute to high levels of bad cholesterol in the body, including some which cannot be controlled.
Hypercholesterolemia risk factors
There are several health and lifestyle issues which can lead to high cholesterol, most of which are also risk factors for high blood pressure as well:
- Sometimes, genetic factors can also contribute to hypercholesterolemia, as they prevent efficient removal of LDL from the blood, causing an overproduction of cholesterol in the liver.
- Obesity and a poor diet can directly impact the cholesterol levels inside the body. Food that contain saturated fats, fat dairy products, or red meat are harmful for your cholesterol levels.
- Leading a sedentary lifestyle is also a threat. Exercising regularly can help the body produce more good cholesterol.
- Age is also a risk factor, as the body’s chemistry changes with age. One example of why this happens is that the liver becomes less and less efficient in removing bad cholesterol.
- Diabetics are also more likely to have high levels of cholesterol. The impact is both direct (as it decreases the levels of good cholesterol in the body) and indirect (high blood sugar is threatening to the artery lining).
Once again, high cholesterol has complications similar to those of hypertension. Because this condition damages the walls of your arteries, you are at risk of developing atherosclerosis. Consequently, the arteries are less capable of allowing a regular stream of blood from passing through, which can eventually lead to problems such as:
- Heart attacks, which are a consequence of plaque ruptures and tears (plaques are the deposits that form on the artery walls). When these plaques are damaged, they can lead to the formation of blood clots, thus interrupting blood flow. As blood fails to circulate, it can cause the heart to stop.
- Strokes occur when the blood supply to your brain is blocked, for the same reasons as the ones listed above.
- Chest pains are also a complication that might result from hypercholesterolemia. These pains occur when there is damage to the arteries that supply blood to your heart.
The lipid profile or the lipid panel is the common medical term used to describe a blood test that checks your cholesterol level. Through this test, doctors can identify important information, such as the total cholesterol, the good and the bad, as well as the triglycerides count.
It’s recommended that you don’t consume any food or drink (except for water) 12 hours before taking the test.
Depending on where you live, you will have different measurement for your cholesterol. In the US, cholesterol is calculated as a measurement per deciliter of blood (which is expressed as mg/dL). In Europe, as well as in Canada, the measurements are in millimoles per liter (which is expressed as mmol/L).
Here are some general guidelines to help you understand the results of total cholesterol:
- Cholesterol levels that are below 200 mg/dL or 5.2 mmol/L are normal.
- When the results show 200-239 mg/dL or 5.2-6.2 mmol/L, it’s an indicator that cholesterol levels are somewhat high.
- High cholesterol is indicated by results of 240 mg/dL or 6.2 mmol/L and above.
Please note these results are for measurements of total cholesterol. The other factors, such as LDL and HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides, have different interpretation intervals.
Keeping hypercholesterolemia under control
Aside from medication which may or not be prescribed to treat high cholesterol, patients are also required to adopt some lifestyle changes, while some prefer turning to alternative medicine to reduce these dangerous levels.
Alternative medicine is based on natural products that can lower the cholesterol level. However, they are to be considered as supplements, and should not entirely replace the medication prescribed by your doctor. Some of these products include oral supplements with plant stanols and sterols, fortified orange juice, barley, or oat bran.
When someone has been diagnosed with a slightly-raised cholesterol level, doctors will suggest making the necessary lifestyle changes, and give out dietary advice for the patient to follow. Medication is normally prescribed only in cases where cholesterol levels are alarming, or when lifestyle and dietary changes fail to improve the condition.
Doctors may prescribe different meds that help keep cholesterol levels under control, but they may also choose to give the patient medication for high triglycerides.
Keep in mind that for the most accurate results, you should avoid eating or drinking 12 hours before taking the blood sample. You should also inform your doctor if you’re taking any other medication (vitamins and supplements included), or if you have a family history of high cholesterol.