A high cholesterol level is a risk factor for a number of health conditions. Most significantly, these are heart disease, stroke, and peripheral artery disease.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that is found in all of the body’s cells. Most of it is made in the liver, but a certain amount is acquired through dietary intake. It is the proportion of cholesterol that is contained in the food an individual eats that is of the greatest concern. There are two main types of cholesterol: high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL). HDL is sometimes known as “good cholesterol” because it carries waste products, including cholesterol, to the liver to be broken down and subsequently excreted from the body. LDL is often known as “bad cholesterol.” It is the type that can accumulate in the walls of the body’s blood vessels. So, a high cholesterol is actually defined by these two levels. 

How High is too High?

Current NHS guidance suggests that a healthy adult should have a total blood cholesterol level that is 5mmol/L or less. Individuals at particular risk of cholesterol-related disease should aim for a level of 4mmol/L or less. For a healthy adult, LDL levels ought to be 3mmol/L or less. A high-risk individual should aim to have a level of 2mmol/L or less. HDL levels should be above 1mmol/L.

What Raises Cholesterol Levels?

There are five main causes:

  • eating a diet high in saturated fat
  • smoking
  • high blood pressure or diabetes
  • an existing predisposition to heart disease or stroke
  • familial hypercholesterolemia, which is an inherited condition that can raise cholesterol levels even in someone who eats a diet low in saturated fat and does not smoke

Low levels of exercise and excessive alcohol consumption are also implicated in raising cholesterol levels.

What are the Consequences of High Cholesterol Levels?

For some people, there is no consequence to a raised cholesterol level. However, it is not possible to know who will and who will not be affected. Many people with high cholesterol levels will be suffering from narrowed arteries, also known as atherosclerosis. This is where fatty plaques clog the arteries’ walls, reducing the space available for blood to flow. Atherosclerosis is often symptomless for a long time but can ultimately result in a heart attack or stroke. It also increases the risk of blood clots. Any of these three conditions can be fatal, with little or no warning.

How to Control High Cholesterol Levels through Non-Medical Means

Eating a proper diet is key. This means restricting saturated fats and replacing them with plenty of vegetables, fruit and whole grains. Boosting exercise levels is also important. Exercise that is sufficient to raise the heart rate for at least twenty minutes can, if undertaken regularly, help to reduce cholesterol levels. Giving up smoking is also vital. Research shows that smokers have higher rates of atherosclerosis than non-smokers and are more likely to die early than non-smokers. Giving up smoking at any age has proven benefits when it comes to extending average lifespan.

How to Control Cholesterol Levels through Medication

Individuals whose cholesterol levels remain high despite a carefully controlled diet, an appropriate exercise regime and giving up smoking may be candidates for a prescribed medication known as statins. Although statins cannot cure cardiovascular disease, they can reduce the chance of developing it in the first place or prevent a condition from worsening. Once prescribed, most people take statins for life.