Cholesterol is a lipid produced by the liver that is required for various bodily functions. Cholesterol is also found in some foods. Having a raised cholesterol level can increase the risk of several adverse health effects including atherosclerosis, heart attack and stroke.
These conditions are caused by cholesterol accumulating in the walls of arteries and decreasing blood flow to the heart, brain and other body parts. The risk of thrombosis is also increased.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is circulated in the blood by transport proteins, which are termed lipoproteins. Low-density lipoproteins (LDLs) carry cholesterol from the liver to various body cells, but if there is an excess beyond the cells’ requirements, cholesterol can accumulate in the walls of arteries and lead to atherosclerosis. LDL is therefore sometimes called “bad cholesterol.”
High-density lipoprotein (HDL), on the other hand, carries cholesterol away from cells to the liver, where it is broken down or treated as a waste product. This lipoprotein is referred to as “good cholesterol.”
Causes of hypercholesterolemia
There are many factors that can raise the risk of hypercholesterolemia causing stroke or heart disease. These include a diet rich in saturated fats, smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, and having a family history of stroke or heart disease.
Diagnosis and treatment
A blood test is performed to check levels of LDL, HDL and triglycerides in the blood. Patients diagnosed with hypercholesterolemia are advised to modify their diet and engage in regular physical activity. Examples of recommended dietary changes include avoiding foods rich in saturated fat such as cheese, chocolate, butter, cream and fatty meats. Saturated fat intake should be restricted to a maximum of 30 g per day for men and 20 g per day for women.
If the blood cholesterol level remains high after a few weeks, the patient may be started on a cholesterol-lowering medication regimen. Examples of medications include statins, aspirin and niacin.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc