Health Problems That Raise Cholesterol Levels
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 73 million American adults have high cholesterol, but no two cases of high cholesterol are exactly alike. Many people have high cholesterol because of a lack of physical activity, a diet that is too high in saturated fat, or a family problem. However, there are other health problems that can cause high cholesterol, especially diseases that affect metabolisms, such as diabetes (high blood sugar) and hypothyroidism (low thyroid activity).
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in the blood. Your body needs cholesterol to build healthy cells, but high cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease. High cholesterol levels can cause fatty deposits to form in your blood vessels. These deposits eventually build up and make it difficult for blood to flow through your arteries. Sometimes these deposits can suddenly rupture and form blood clots, leading to a heart attack or stroke. Although high cholesterol can be inherited, it is often caused by unhealthy lifestyle choices and can be both prevented and treated. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and sometimes medication can help lower high cholesterol.
High Cholesterol: The Big Picture
When the body’s metabolism (the process by which the body converts food into energy) is affected by health problems, cholesterol levels in the blood are often affected as well. In order to find the best way to treat high cholesterol, we first need to understand why high cholesterol occurs, and identifying other health problems is an important consideration. “When we see someone come in for evaluation for high LDL cholesterol or triglycerides, we always want to look for associated metabolic abnormalities,” says Stephen J. Nichols, MD, professor of cardiology at the University of Adelaide in Australia. Treatment of hypercholesterolemia involves “managing the whole picture, not just one risk factor for our patients,” Dr. Nichols explains.” It’s often important to keep this in mind when looking at patients and their cholesterol levels.
Health Conditions That Cause High Cholesterol Levels
Many health conditions can cause high cholesterol levels, and high cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease, including stroke. Knowing your risk is the first step towards prevention. Health conditions that are known to increase cholesterol levels include:
- Diabetes (lack of insulin hormone production)
- Kidney disease
- Cushing’s syndrome
- Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland)
- Liver disease, such as cirrhosis and nonalcoholic
- Alcohol abuse
These health conditions can raise cholesterol levels for a number of reasons. First, blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels basically reflect the metabolism of the fats we eat throughout the day,” Nichols says. “Diabetes and thyroid disease affect the way we metabolize cholesterol and triglycerides,” he says, directly affecting blood triglyceride and cholesterol levels. When these conditions slow down metabolism, the body can’t process everything it needs, including fats and cholesterol. In conditions such as alcoholism and liver disease, the liver does not function well enough to metabolize all the saturated fats in the diet and the cholesterol produced in the body. As a result, cholesterol builds up in the bloodstream.
High cholesterol levels can cause a dangerous buildup of cholesterol and other deposits (atherosclerosis) in the walls of the arteries. These deposits (plaque) reduce blood flow in the arteries, which can lead to complications, such as
- Chest pain. When the arteries that supply blood to the heart (coronary arteries) become blocked, symptoms of coronary artery disease, such as chest pain (angina), can occur.
- Heart attack. If a plaque tears or ruptures, a blood clot can form at the site of the ruptured plaque, blocking blood flow or freeing and blocking downstream arteries. If blood flow to any part of your heart stops, you will have a heart attack.
- Similar to a heart attack, a stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks blood flow to a part of the brain.
How to Prevent High Cholesterol
If you have any of these health problems, you’re at risk for high cholesterol, but there are steps you can take to prevent it. Regular exercise and an improved diet that reduces foods high in saturated fats (such as butter, full-fat dairy products, and animal fats) can go a long way toward keeping cholesterol levels low and protecting heart health. Discuss the risk of high cholesterol with your doctor. It is important to monitor your cholesterol levels with a simple blood test to help you reach your health goals and reduce your risk of a heart attack. Your doctor may recommend that you take cholesterol-lowering medications as needed to minimize your risk of heart disease.
In addition to encouraging healthy habits, there are things you can do to protect yourself from high cholesterol and heart disease. Diet is one of the biggest problems. To help control your cholesterol, avoid foods high in saturated fat, such as meat, butter, cheese, and other high-fat dairy products. You should also supplement foods that help lower LDL cholesterol, such as nuts, avocados, olive oil and oatmeal. Exercise is another important part of the equation. The American Heart Association recommends at least 40 minutes of moderate walking or other exercises a day, three to four times a week. If walking isn’t your thing, try riding a bike Making heart-healthy lifestyle changes and lowering your cholesterol can likewise help prevent high blood clots in the first place. To prevent high cholesterol, you can do the following
- Eat a low-salt diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Limit the amount of animal fat and use appropriate fats in moderation.
- Lose excess weight and maintain a healthy weight.
- Quit smoking
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes most days of the week.
- Drink alcohol in moderation, if possible.
- Manage your stress
Ask your doctor if you need a cholesterol test. Children and adolescents without risk factors for heart disease are usually tested between the ages of 9 and 11, and again between the ages of 17 and 19. Adults without risk factors for heart disease are usually tested every 5 years. If your test results are not in the desired range, your doctor may recommend more frequent testing. Your doctor may also recommend more frequent testing if you have high cholesterol, heart disease, or a family history of risk factors such as smoking, diabetes, or high blood pressure.