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Hypercholesterolemia is a word for high levels of cholesterol in the blood. Some people have an inherited syndrome, which causes very high levels of cholesterol.

Untreated high cholesterol raises the risk of heart disease and cardiovascular problems.

The Center for Inherited Heart Disease at the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute provides diagnosis and treatment all in one place. No need to travel around for outside referrals.

Contact the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute

To request an appointment, contact the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute:

What Is Hypercholesterolemia?

Hypercholesterolemia is the medical term for high cholesterol.

Your body needs some cholesterol to make hormones and digest fatty foods. But too much raises the risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular problems.

About 38% of American adults have high cholesterol.

There are two main types of cholesterol:

  • LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, carries cholesterol to the cells that need it. But sometimes, there is too much LDL. This causes cholesterol to build up in the artery walls. LDL is often referred to as “bad cholesterol."
  • HDL, or high-density lipoprotein absorbs bad cholesterol. HDL then carries it to the liver and removes it from circulation. HDL is often referred to as "good cholesterol."

When you have too much cholesterol, sometimes your body can't remove it.

For some people, this is a genetic condition called familial lipid syndrome. Familial high cholesterol affects about 1 in 200 to 250 people around the world.

Hypercholesterolemia Causes

Common causes of high cholesterol include:

  • Eating a diet high in saturated fat and trans fat, often found in animal meat and processed foods.
  • Eating foods high in cholesterol, such as red meat and full-fat dairy.

Certain genetic changes can cause familial hypercholesterolemia. These changes make the body unable to get rid of excess cholesterol, causing it to build up in the blood.

People with familial syndrome aren't able to lower cholesterol through diet and exercise alone.

Hypercholesterolemia Risk Factors and Complications

What you eat and other lifestyle factors play a big role in having high cholesterol.

Other risk factors include:

  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Age

Excess cholesterol builds up in the bloodstream. It collects in the arteries, causing them to get clogged.

This makes it harder for blood to flow normally through your body and can lead to heart disease, stroke, or heart attack.

Familial high cholesterol can lead to heart disease at a young age.

It can also cause deposits of cholesterol under the skin. These look like bumps that can show up around the eyelids or over the hands, knees, or ankles.

Hypercholesterolemia Symptoms and Diagnosis

High cholesterol doesn't cause symptoms. When the cholesterol causes the arteries to narrow, then most people have symptoms of heart disease.

Heart disease symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue

Diagnosing Hypercholesterolemia

To diagnose high cholesterol, your doctor will order a simple blood test.

Hypercholesterolemia Treatment

Lifestyle changes to treat high cholesterol

The first step toward managing or lowering cholesterol is through diet and exercise.

Here are some tips to get started:

  • Follow a plant-based diet. Limit animal sources of saturated fat.
  • Eat fish a few times a week.
  • Choose low-fat dairy products.
  • Choose olive or other plant-based oils over butter for more healthy fats.
  • Be physically active at least 30 minutes, 5 days per week.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Stop smoking.

Medicine to treat high cholesterol

Sometimes lifestyle changes aren't enough to get your cholesterol within desired levels. Your doctor may then prescribe medication to get your cholesterol levels to more appropriate levels.