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High Cholesterol: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

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What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance in your blood, sometimes called a lipid.

Your liver makes some of it. Other cholesterol comes from meat and other foods you eat.

Your body needs cholesterol to make hormones and healthy cells. But too much can cause it to build up in your blood vessels. This can block blood from reaching vital organs like your kidneys.

Over 102 million Americans have unhealthy cholesterol levels. High cholesterol is common in people with heart and chronic kidney disease.

Your doctor can measure your levels by doing one or more blood tests.

Types of cholesterol

There's more than one kind of cholesterol:

  • LDL cholesterol, or low-density lipoprotein, carries cholesterol to the cells that need it. But sometimes, it takes too much, which builds up in the artery walls and can cause blockages. You may hear LDL called “bad cholesterol."
  • HDL cholesterol, or high-density lipoprotein, is the “good" type. It carries extra cholesterol away from the cells and back to the liver.

What causes high cholesterol?

A number of factors can cause high cholesterol readings. Some you can change, and some you can't.

These include:

  • Genetics. About one in 250 people inherit a changed gene that gives them high cholesterol.
  • Unhealthy diet. Eating a lot of saturated fats (red meat, butter, cheese) or trans fats (found in packaged snacks).
  • Lack of exercise. People who are sedentary tend to have higher cholesterol levels.
  • Smoking, especially in women. Smoking lowers HDL (good) levels and raises the bad LDL ones.
  • Other medical conditions. Having HIV, diabetes, hypothyroidism, or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) can contribute to high cholesterol readings.
  • Some medications. Water pills to treat high blood pressure can lower HDL cholesterol levels. So can steroids for inflammatory diseases and retinoids for acne.

Who's at risk for high cholesterol?

The following may increase your risk of having high cholesterol:

  • Your age. The older you are, the less efficient your liver is at removing LDL cholesterol. So, older people have a greater chance of high cholesterol. But even some young people have it.
  • Being overweight or obese.
  • Family history. High cholesterol and related problems, such as heart and kidney disease, tend to run in families. You have a greater risk of high cholesterol if your relatives have it.
  • Ethnic background. African-Americans and Hispanics are at greater risk.
  • Sex. Young men tend to have higher cholesterol than young women. But women are more likely to develop high cholesterol after menopause.

Does high cholesterol cause complications?

Yes. Complications stem from the plaque building up on the blood vessel walls.

High cholesterol can lead to health issues such as:

How can I prevent high cholesterol?

You can't change your genetic makeup or age.

But you can do many things to prevent or reduce high cholesterol, like:

  • Eating heart-healthy foods, such as fruits, veggies, and fish.
  • Being more active. Even taking small steps can have a big impact over time.
  • Cutting back on alcohol and quitting smoking.
  • Losing weight or staying at a healthy weight.

Why Choose UPMC for High Cholesterol Care?

UPMC offers state-of-the-art treatments for people with high cholesterol, especially as it relates to kidney disease.

We also have kidney clinics across Pennsylvania and in Maryland.

High Cholesterol Symptoms and Diagnosis

What are the symptoms of high cholesterol?

For the most part, symptoms are invisible.

Instead, you may have symptoms of kidney or heart disease, which are linked to high cholesterol.

How do doctors test for high cholesterol?

The only sure way of knowing your cholesterol levels is to have routine blood tests. How often will depend on your age, family history, and risk factors.

A blood test measures total cholesterol levels plus the level of different types of cholesterol and fats in your blood. A total cholesterol level of 200 mg/dL is high.

You shouldn't eat for nine to 12 hours before your blood test.

How Do You Treat High Cholesterol?

You don't feel sick if you have high cholesterol, so it's easy to ignore it. But it's vital to get your levels under control before it causes heart or kidney problems.

UPMC doctors can help guide you with lifestyle choices and medication to treat your high cholesterol. Your doctor will talk to you about what treatment makes sense for your particular case.

Lifestyle changes to manage high cholesterol

Your doctor may suggest making some of the following lifestyle changes to help lower your cholesterol:

  • Switch up your diet. Increase whole grains, fresh fruit, and veggies. Choose lean protein (chicken breast, fish) over high-fat cuts of beef and pork.
  • Lose weight. Losing even a small amount of weight can help lower your cholesterol.
  • Start an exercise program. Workouts don't have to be complex. Even walking around the block is helpful. Aim for 20 to 30 minutes of exercise five times per week. Biking, swimming, walking, or jogging are great options for raising your heart rate.
  • Quit smoking. Or, at least reduce how much you smoke.
  • Limit alcohol consumption. Too much alcohol can raise cholesterol levels. Stick to moderate drinking, i.e., one drink per day for women and two for men.

Medicine to treat high cholesterol

Your doctor will look at your cholesterol levels and other risk factors before prescribing medication.

Statins can lower cholesterol. They also reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke.

Other drugs improve your cholesterol levels but don't lower the risk of a heart attack.

Some people take these if they can't take a statin:

  • Bile acid sequestrants.
  • Fibrates.
  • Niacin.

It's vital to take medication for high cholesterol as prescribed, even if you feel well.

Talk to your doctor about taking any over-the-counter supplements. Some of them do not react well with statins.

And tell them about any side effects the medicine is causing.

If you're at high risk of heart or kidney disease, your doctor may suggest both medicine and lifestyle changes.