High Cholesterol Levels
Symptoms And Health Risks
There are few if any visible symptoms of raised cholesterol levels in the bloodstream (hypercholesterolemia), although in some patients with genetically inherited high cholesterol (familial hypercholesterolemia), it is possible to see deposits of cholesterol in the skin, eyelids (xanthelasma palpabrum), cornea (arcus senilis) and tendons (xanthoma). Technically, hypercholesterolemia is not a disease but a metabolic problem that may contribute to many forms of disease, including: atherosclerosis, angina pectoris, vascular disease, coronary thrombosis, and transient ischemic attacks (mini-strokes). It is closely associated with “hyperlipidemia” (elevated levels of lipids) and “hyperlipoproteinemia” (elevated levels of lipoproteins).
Cardiovascular disease is the main consequence of raised cholesterol. Thus, a high cholesterol count combined with other factors (eg. hypertension) increases the likelihood of developing atherosclerosis (clogging/narrowing of the arteries) and cardiovascular disease. To put it another way, the symptoms of long term high cholesterol only become evident when some atherosclerotic disease is already present. The severity of these symptoms are dependent on the degree of arterial constriction, the risk of rupture and the organ supplied by the diseased arteries.
Health Dangers From Clogged Arteries Supplying The Brain
If an atherosclerotic cerebral (brain) artery becomes blocked, it will cause a transient ischemic attack (mini-stroke) or a full stroke (cerebrovascular accident or CVA). The latter can be fatal.
Health Dangers From Clogged Arteries Supplying The Heart
If a coronary artery becomes blocked, it leads to coronary thrombosis (myocardial infarction or heart attack), which may lead to reduced heart function, heart failure or even death.
Health Dangers From Other Clogged Arteries
Cholesterol induced atherosclerosis commonly spreads to all major arteries, but certain arteries can cause specific health dangers when narrowed. For example, a severely constricted artery in the neck (eg. carotid artery) may lead to the formation of a local blood clot which can float downstream into the brain, triggering a stroke. If a major artery or blood vessel to a lower limb experiences an atherosclerotic blockage, it may lead to a serious lack of oxygen in the limb which might necessitate amputation.
Causes Of Raised Cholesterol
In simple terms, hypercholesterolemia arises in one of two ways: either because too much dietary cholesterol is consumed (in the form of saturated or trans fats) or because the body is unable to regulate cholesterol levels due to inherited or lifestyle factors.
High Fat Diets
Eating excessive amounts of saturated fat (eg. from animal foods or eggs) combined with inadequate nutrition from fruits, vegetables and high-fiber foods, can lead to high cholesterol. A high intake of trans fats (eg. from cakes, cookies, crackers, pies) can also lead to raised cholesterol.
Genetic Predisposition To Raised Cholesterol
Elevated cholesterol can run in families. This is called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH). If triglyceride levels are also high, it is called familial combined hyperlipidemia (FCH).
Geographic Causes Of Raised Cholesterol
Lipid levels may also be influenced by geography. For example, cholesterol counts in northern European countries are higher than in southern Europe and much higher than in Asia. This may be the result of a combination of food, exercise, stress, sunshine and genetics.
Raised Cholesterol Caused By Disease
Hypercholesterolemia is also associated with other diseases, including: hypothyroidism, kidney diseases, diabetes, insulin disorders and liver disease.
Lifestyle Risk Factors
Smoking is a risk factor for high cholesterol, as it interferes with the body’s capacity to regulate lipid levels in the blood. Over consumption of alcohol is another risk factor, as it raises blood pressure and damages the liver. Lack of exercise also contributes to the development of hypercholesterolemia. Regular physical exercise reduces the risk of coronary artery disease. Vigorous physical exercise increases the blood’s ability to break up blood clots. Overall it helps to lower LDL and raise HDL cholesterol. Exercise also assists weight loss which is especially beneficial, because obesity – especially when the fat is located around the stomach or abdomen – may increase the risk of lipid-related disease. In the case of obese patients, reducing weight typically reduces cholesterol levels. For example, it lowers LDL and total cholesterol, raises HDL and lowers triglycerides.