Cholesterol makes up the natural building blocks of every cell in our body and is involved in hormone production. Cholesterol is a lipid that mostly comes from the fatty food we consume and is produced by the liver, however if we consume too much fatty foods and we don't exercise enough it can cause an excess of cholesterol and triglycerides (other fats) in our blood, which can be extremely dangerous to our health.
The terms 'good' or 'bad cholesterol' has more to do with where the cholesterol is being transported to, than the exact type. Cholesterol is transported around our bodies by lipoproteins, those that carry it to our organs and the others that take it away from our organs. HDLs (high-density lipoproteins) carry cholesterol away from our cells to be broken down in our liver, while LDLs (low-density lipoproteins) carry cholesterol to our cells. If too much LDL is present and there is not enough HDL to take away the cholesterol once LDL has taken it too cells, it can start to cause a build-up in our arteries. Ideally one would aim to keep LDL low and stimulate production of HDL.
A blood sample will be required to measure your HDL, LDL and triglycerides in your body. It's measured in milimoles per litre or mmol/L of blood. Ideally LDL should be lower than 3mmol/L and overall blood cholesterol should be under 5mmol/L.
People who tend to be at risk of having or developing high cholesterol are those who are over the age of 40, overweight or obese, have high blood pressure, diabetes, a kidney problem, an underactive thyroid or an inflamed pancreas. You should also consider having your cholesterol checked if you've been diagnosed as having coronary heart disease or if you've recently had a stroke. If you have a family history of cardiovascular disease or any of your family members have been diagnosed as having high cholesterol, a visit to your doctor should also be considered.
High cholesterol is dangerous, because it can lead to a hardening or narrowing of arteries that can increase a person's risk of heart attack, stroke or coronary heart disease, which could be fatal.
High cholesterol mostly develops as a result of lifestyle factors, such as an unhealthy diet, drinking too much and not being active enough. However, a person can be more prone to developing high cholesterol because it's genetic or they fall within an ethnic group where the risk is higher. It is also possible for another condition to cause high blood cholesterol, such as hypertension (high blood pressure) or diabetes.
Ideally, high cholesterol should be detected soon enough so that it can effectively be lowered with the help of diet and exercise. However if these methods are not effective enough, a doctor may supplement these efforts with prescription medications, designed to lower LDL and/or increase HDL levels. These treatments will more than likely be a long term effort. If high cholesterol is the result of another medical condition, treatment for the condition could lower high cholesterol.
There are four different types of medicines that can be used in the treatment of high cholesterol, and those are statins ezetimibe, niacin (B-vitamin) and aspirin. Which is prescribed to you will depend on your condition and your likelihood of developing side effects. Ezetimibe is less likely to cause side effects than statins, but might not be as effective, while aspirin is mostly intended to prevent blood clotting. Niacin is not commonly used, because of its high tendency to cause side effects.
Certain people can be more prone to developing high blood cholesterol because it runs in their family. This condition is known as familial hypercholesterolaemia. This is why it is a good idea to get a test if your family has a history of cholesterol related illness or high cholesterol.
High cholesterol caused by lifestyle factors is potentially preventable. Which means watching how much fatty food you consume, not drinking too much and being active enough are all steps you can take to lower your risk of developing high cholesterol. Those who have a genetic or ethnic background that increases their risk of developing high blood cholesterol should be even more vigilant about living healthily.