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Focus Healthcare: What is high cholesterol?

High cholesterol, also known as hypercholesterolemia, refers to elevated levels of cholesterol in the blood. Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in the cells of the body and in the food we consume. High cholesterol is a significant risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, including heart attacks and strokes.

What causes high cholesterol?

The primary causes of high cholesterol include:

  • Diet: Consuming a diet high in saturated and trans fat can raise blood cholesterol levels.
  • Genetics: Some individuals may inherit genes that lead to high cholesterol levels.
  • Lifestyle Factors: Lack of physical activity, smoking, and excessive alcohol consumption can contribute to high cholesterol.

What are the symptoms of high cholesterol?

High cholesterol itself doesn't typically cause noticeable symptoms. It is often referred to as a "silent" condition. However, the long-term effects of high cholesterol, such as atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in arteries), can lead to heart-related symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, or angina. The first sign of high cholesterol may be a heart attack or stroke. To put it bluntly, silence is not bliss.

What tests are conducted to determine high cholesterol?

To diagnose high cholesterol, healthcare providers use a blood test called a lipid panel or a cholesterol blood test. This test measures various types of cholesterol, including low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Based on the results, a healthcare provider can assess your risk and determine appropriate treatment.

It is very important to note the target LDL levels are different for different individuals. There are various cutoffs, often dictated by preexisting conditions and what maybe normal for you could be high for another individual. Reading of the reference ranges given in the lab test reports are not accurate as they do not factor in these preexisting conditions and inevitably lead to false reassurances.

There is increased understanding of other testing parameters like Lipoprotein A. This is Lp(a) for short and is a genetically determined marker that if elevated, further increases your cardiovascular risk for any given LDL value. It is recommended to get it tested once in your lifetime.

What treatments are available for high cholesterol?

High cholesterol is managed through a combination of lifestyle changes and, in some cases, medication.

Treatment options include:

  • Dietary Changes: Adopting a heart-healthy diet low in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol can help lower cholesterol levels.
  • Regular Exercise: Physical activity can help raise HDL (good) cholesterol and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol.
  • Medications: Statins and other cholesterol-lowering medications may be prescribed if lifestyle changes alone are insufficient or if the risk of heart disease is high.
  • Lifestyle Modifications: Quitting smoking, reducing alcohol intake, and maintaining a healthy weight are essential for managing high cholesterol.

It's crucial to have regular check-ups with a healthcare provider to monitor cholesterol levels and assess your risk for heart disease. High cholesterol is a treatable condition, and early intervention can significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular problems.

By Dr. Pinakin V Parekh, Senior Consultant Cardiologist, The Harley Street Heart & Vascular Centre

SOURCE: The Harley Street, Heart & Vascular Centre

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