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High blood cholesterol levels

Definition

Cholesterol is a fat (also called a lipid) that your body needs to work properly. Too much bad cholesterol can increase your chance of getting heart disease, stroke, and other problems.

The medical term for high blood cholesterol is lipid disorder, hyperlipidemia, or hypercholesterolemia.

Test Your Cholesterol Knowledge

What does a lipid profile (also called a lipid panel) measure?

The correct answer is all of the above. The test measures the level of these fats, or lipids, in your blood. Cholesterol is found in all parts of the body. Your body needs a little bit of cholesterol. But too much cholesterol can clog your arteries and lead to heart disease and stroke. Some cholesterol is considered "good" (HDL) and some is considered "bad." (LDL)

Having high LDL cholesterol is healthy.

The correct answer is false. When you have too much LDL, or "bad," cholesterol in your blood, it can build up on artery walls, causing them to become hard and narrow. The lower your LDL, the lower your risk for heart disease. Ask your doctor what your LDL level should be.

Which type of cholesterol is called "good" cholesterol?

The correct answer is HDL. HDL helps remove LDL cholesterol from artery walls. HDL levels of 60 mg/dL or above helps protect you from heart disease. HDL below 40 mg/dL for men and below 50 mg/dL for women can increase your risk for heart disease.

Having high cholesterol and triglyceride levels increases your risk for:

The correct answer is all of the above. When plaque builds up on your artery walls, blood clots can form that block blood flow to the heart or brain, causing a heart attack or stroke. Talk with your doctor about how you can lower your risk for heart disease.

Medicine is the only treatment for high cholesterol and triglycerides.

The correct answer is false. Improving your health habits can lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Sometimes, lifestyle changes alone aren't enough, so your doctor may prescribe medicine.

Which habits can lead to high cholesterol levels?

The correct answer is all of the above. Family history, diabetes, and other medical problems also increase your risk. Ask your doctor about healthy changes you can make to help lower high cholesterol.

If you are overweight, losing 5 to 10 pounds can help lower cholesterol levels.

The correct answer is true. To lose about one pound a week, eat about 500 fewer calories a day. You can lose weight by eating smaller portions. Also replace low-fiber, high-fat foods with lean meats and other proteins, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Getting regular exercise can improve your cholesterol numbers.

The correct answer is true. Exercising 30 minutes a day at least 5 days a week can increase HDL levels by about 5 percent. If you haven't been active, check with your doctor before starting to exercise. Start by walking just a few minutes several times a week. Build up to 30 minutes of brisk exercise 5 days a week.

Heart-healthy fats include:

The correct answer is monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. They are found in fish, nuts, seeds, avocados, and olive, canola, corn, soy, and sunflower oils. Replacing saturated and trans fats with these healthy fats helps lower LDL and increase HDL. Omega-3s from fish help lower high triglycerides.

Quitting smoking can help you:

The correct answer is all of the above. Quitting isn't easy, but keep in mind that the more times you attempt to quit, the more likely you are to be successful.

Alternative Names

Lipid disorders; Hyperlipoproteinemia; Hyperlipidemia; Dyslipidemia; Hypercholesterolemia

Causes

There are many types of cholesterol. The ones talked about most are:

  • Total cholesterol - all the cholesterols combined
  • High density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol - often called "good" cholesterol
  • Low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol - often called "bad" cholesterol

For many people, abnormal cholesterol levels are partly due to an unhealthy lifestyle. This often includes eating a diet that is high in fat. Other lifestyle factors are:

  • Being overweight
  • Lack of exercise
Cholesterol producers

Cholesterol producers

Some health conditions can also lead to abnormal cholesterol, including:

  • Diabetes
  • Kidney disease
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome
  • Pregnancy and other conditions that increase levels of female hormones
  • Underactive thyroid gland

Medicines such as certain birth control pills, diuretics (water pills), beta-blockers, and some medicines used to treat depression may also raise cholesterol levels. Several disorders that are passed down through families lead to abnormal cholesterol and triglyceride levels. They include:

  • Familial combined hyperlipidemia
  • Familial dysbetalipoproteinemia
  • Familial hypercholesterolemia
  • Familial hypertriglyceridemia

Smoking does not cause higher cholesterol levels, but it can reduce your HDL (good) cholesterol.

Exams and Tests

A cholesterol test is done to diagnose a lipid disorder. Some guidelines recommend having your first screening cholesterol test at age 20. Everyone should have their first screening test by age 35 in men, and age 45 in women. (Note: Different experts recommend different starting ages.)

It is important to work with your health care provider to set your cholesterol goals. Newer guidelines steer doctors away from targeting specific levels of cholesterol. Instead, it recommends different medicines and doses depending on a person's history and risk factor profile.

General targets are:

  • LDL: 70 to 130 mg/dL (lower numbers are better)
  • HDL: more than 50 mg/dL (high numbers are better)
  • Total cholesterol: less than 200 mg/dL (lower numbers are better)
  • Triglycerides: 10 to 150 mg/dL (lower numbers are better)
Cholesterol

Cholesterol

If your cholesterol results are abnormal, you may also have other tests such as:

  • Blood sugar (glucose) test to look for diabetes
  • Kidney function tests
  • Thyroid function tests to look for an underactive thyroid gland

Treatment

Steps you can take to improve their cholesterol levels, and help prevent heart disease and a heart attack include:

  • Quit smoking. This is the single biggest change you can make to reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke. Eat foods that are naturally low in fat. These include whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
  • Use low-fat toppings, sauces, and dressings.
  • Avoid foods that are high in saturated fat.
  • Exercise regularly
  • Lose weight if you are overweight

Your provider may want you to take medicine for your cholesterol if lifestyle changes do not work. This will depend on:

  • Your age
  • Whether or not you have heart disease, diabetes, or other blood flow problems
  • Whether you smoke or are overweight
  • Whether you have high blood pressure or diabetes

You are more likely to need medicine to lower your cholesterol:

  • If you have heart disease or diabetes
  • If you are at risk for heart disease (even if you do not yet have any heart problems)

Almost everyone else may get health benefits from LDL cholesterol that is lower than 160 mg/dL to 190 mg/dL.

There are several types of drugs to help lower blood cholesterol levels. The drugs work in different ways. Statins are one kind of drug that lowers cholesterol and has been proven to reduce the chance of heart disease.

Outlook (Prognosis)

High cholesterol levels can lead to hardening of the arteries, also called atherosclerosis. This occurs when fat, cholesterol, and other substances build up in the walls of arteries and form hard structures called plaques.

Developmental process of atherosclerosis

Developmental process of atherosclerosis

Over time, these plaques can block the arteries and cause heart disease, stroke, and other symptoms or problems throughout the body.

Disorders that are passed down through families often lead to higher cholesterol levels that are harder to control.

Images

Cholesterol producers
Coronary artery disease
Cholesterol
Developmental process of atherosclerosis

References

Genest J, Libby P. Lipoprotein disorders and cardiovascular disease. In: Mann DL, Zipes DP, Libby P, et al, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 45.

Haney EM, Huffman LH, Bougatsos C, et al. Screening for Lipid Disorders in Children and Adolescents [Internet]. Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); 2007 Jul. Report No.: 07-0598-EF-1 PMID: 20722144 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20722144.

Helfand M, Carson S, eds. Screening for Lipid Disorders in Adults: Selective Update of 2001 US Preventive Services Task Force Review [Internet]. Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); 2008 Jun. Report No.: 08-05114-EF-1 PMID: 20722146 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20722146.

Semenkovich, CF. Disorders of lipid metabolism. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 206.

Stone NJ, Robinson J, Lichtenstein AH, et al. 2013 ACC/AHA guideline on the treatment of blood cholesterol to reduce atherosclerotic cardiovascular risk in adults: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. Circulation. 2014 Jun 24;129(25 Suppl 2):S46-8. PMID: 24222016 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24222016.

Review Date: 
4/20/2015
Reviewed By: 
Michael A. Chen, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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