High cholesterol

High cholesterol levels (hyperlipidaemia) can increase your risk of several serious health conditions, including heart attack and stroke.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What is high cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance in your blood which helps to build and maintain healthy cells. It combines with proteins to form lipoproteins which carry the cholesterol around your body in your blood. There are two main types of lipoproteins:

  • HDL – often referred to as good cholesterol – carries cholesterol back to your liver where it is broken down and removed from your body
  • LDL cholesterol – or bad cholesterol – carries cholesterol to your cells and if you have too much, it tends to stick around

As cholesterol levels increase, fatty LDL cholesterol builds up in your arteries, increasing your risk of serious heart or circulation problems.

Men are more likely to have high cholesterol, although going through the menopause early increases the risk for women.

How to tell is you have high cholesterol

High cholesterol is usually symptomless but can be diagnosed with a cholesterol test, which is a blood test. Once spotted, high cholesterol levels can be lowered by making simple lifestyle changes and/or medication.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

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Diagnosis and tests for high cholesterol

If you have a condition which is affected by or raises cholesterol levels, your GP will regularly test your cholesterol.

If you’re over the age of 40 or concerned about your cholesterol levels, ask your GP about cholesterol testing.

Your GP will discuss your lifestyle, family history and general health, including any heart or circulatory problems. If needed, your GP will arrange for you to have a cholesterol test to check cholesterol levels.

This test involves taking a small sample of your blood, either using a needle or by pricking your finger. To provide an accurate result, you can’t eat for up to 12 hours before your cholesterol test.

Causes of high cholesterol

There are many different reasons for high cholesterol levels.

Your lifestyle plays a major part in your cholesterol levels being too high. Factors include:

  • Eating unhealthily
  • Not doing enough exercise
  • Being overweight
  • Smoking
  • Drinking too much alcohol

Other risk factors include:

  • Your age – you’re more likely to develop high cholesterol as you get older
  • Your genes – a family history of heart disease, stroke or high cholesterol increases your chance of having high cholesterol
  • Your ethnic group – if you’re of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan descent, you have an increased risk of developing high cholesterol

There are also several conditions which can raise your cholesterol levels, including:

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Kidney or liver disease
  • Underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism)
  • Gout

Common treatments for high cholesterol

High cholesterol can be successfully treated. Your GP will tell you how to lower your cholesterol by changing your lifestyle, including following a healthy, balanced, low cholesterol diet. A low cholesterol diet features:

  • Lots of fruit, vegetable and fibre
  • As few saturated fats as possible – check food labels
  • Omega-3 fatty acids – oily fish and avocadoes are a good source of these healthy fats

Other lifestyle changes which can help lower high cholesterol levels include:

  • Losing any excess weight and/or maintaining a healthy weight
  • Stopping smoking and keeping within the recommended limits for alcohol
  • Taking regular exercise – aim for 30 minutes every day

If lifestyle changes fail to lower your cholesterol levels, your GP may prescribe cholesterol lowering medication called statins. Alternatively, your GP may recommend aspirin or medication to prevent cholesterol being absorbed or building up in your arteries. If you need to lose a lot of weight, your GP may consider whether obesity surgery, such as a gastric bypass, might help.

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