Cholesterol is an important substance produced by the liver which helps maintain a healthy body.
Present in every cell, it aids digestion, generates Vitamin D, and produces hormones.
However, when levels of cholesterol become high, the risk of certain health conditions, including a stroke, heart disease, and a heart attack, increases.
Two Types of Cholesterol
Cholesterol is often spoken of in terms of two different types, 'good' and 'bad'. Cholesterol is an oil-based substance requiring lipoproteins to transport it around the body, and cholesterol present in high-density lipoproteins are the good variety.
They help remove the bad cholesterol which is present within low-density lipoproteins, keeping the blood vessels and arteries from becoming clogged and lessening the hardening of the artery walls.
What is High Cholesterol?
High cholesterol is when you have too much cholesterol in your blood. Certain factors over which you have little control, such as age and genetics, can increase levels of cholesterol.
However, there are a number of lifestyle factors which can lead to this condition also, including a poor diet containing too many fatty foods, lack of exercise, and smoking.
Too much cholesterol leads to blockages in the blood arteries, a process known as atherosclerosis. Plaque forms and hardens over time, stiffening and narrowing the arteries.
As the narrow arteries strain is placed on the heart, it needs to work harder to pump the blood around the body.
Eventually, blood clots may form over these hardened areas of plaque within the arteries, parts of which can break off to become stuck in an artery or vein elsewhere in the body.
Health Issues Associated With High Cholesterol
The build-up of these fatty deposits in the arteries can result in cardiovascular disease, while a blockage in the blood supply to the brain causes a stroke.
Also, as the heart works harder to pump the blood through narrowed arteries, the heart muscle becomes bigger to cope with the extra workload.
However, it will eventually weaken to the point where you may suffer heart failure. Another issue can be peripheral arterial disease, where the arteries feeding the legs and feet are clogged, reducing the level of blood reaching them. This can result in cold and painful feet, particularly when you are walking.
An artery leading to the heart becoming completely blocked, often due to a blood clot forming over the plaque which has been building up, is the leading cause of heart attacks.
The blood supply is cut off by the clot, resulting in part of the heart muscle dying.
A heart attack is a medical emergency which requires immediate medical attention, but early intervention can help remove the blockage. It's important not to confuse a heart attack with cardiac arrest as the two are very different conditions.
Testing Your Cholesterol levels
Although the dangers from too much cholesterol in the blood are severe, there are often no signs to indicate someone is suffering from the condition.
Heart attacks can be sudden, and the best way to be aware is to have regular screenings.
Your doctor may also suggest a test if he suspects your cholesterol may be high due to your age, weight, or lifestyle.
Cholesterol levels are tested with a simple blood test.
Blood is either taken from the arm with a needle (with the results received back within days) or from a finger prick test (where the sample is placed into a machine and the results processed within minutes).
As cholesterol levels can vary daily, you may need to have more than one test before any recommendation going forward is made by your doctor.
If your test indicates your cholesterol is too high, there are a number of ways your doctor may advise to help you reduce it.
These could involve changes to your lifestyle, including giving up smoking, reducing your alcohol intake, increasing exercise, and eating a healthier diet.
A reduction in eating certain fatty foods will be the focus, and your doctor will be able to advise on healthy foods to eat. Losing any excess weight will also be recommended.
If lifestyle changes do not reduce your cholesterol level sufficiently, or your risk from heart disease is already high, your doctor may suggest statins - these work by slowing down the production of cholesterol in the liver.