High cholesterol, a well-known risk factor for heart disease and stroke, affects about 1 in every 3 American adults. That’s arguably a pretty large proportion of adults who have high cholesterol – and it raises the question: why is high cholesterol so common?
Dietary habits, as many people know, are often responsible for high levels of cholesterol: eat a lot of foods high in saturated fat – cheeseburgers, for instance – and your cholesterol levels might swing upwards. (We know, they’re delicious.)
But diet isn’t always the whole picture when it comes to cholesterol levels: high cholesterol can make an unwelcome appearance even if you’re very careful about eating a healthy, balanced diet.
Dietary habits are often responsible for high levels of cholesterol: eat a lot of foods high in saturated fat – cheeseburgers, for instance – and your cholesterol levels might swing upwards. But diet isn’t always the whole picture when it comes to cholesterol levels.
Here’s why: there are other potential drivers of high cholesterol, such as a lack of exercise and one’s genetics. (So it can be helpful to check your cholesterol levels regardless of your dietary habits – something you can now do from the convenience of home.)
Let’s take a closer look at both of these non-dietary reasons for high cholesterol.
Truth be told, it’s not always easy to find the time – or the motivation – to consistently exercise. But take note: regular physical activity is an absolute must if you want to safeguard your body’s health and well-being. Exercise, after all, has many benefits – both physiological and psychological (“there is irrefutable evidence,” wrote one group of researchers, that regular physical activity can help prevent many chronic diseases and premature death).
Regular physical activity is an absolute must if you want to safeguard your body’s health and well-being.
On the flip side, a lack of exercise frequently comes with a variety of health consequences – some of them rather severe. One health consequence, for example, is an increased risk of gaining an unhealthy amount of weight.
Over the long term, a lack of exercise can lead to obesity – which, in turn, can significantly lift cholesterol levels. In fact, up to 70% of patients with obesity have abnormalities in their cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Importantly, when obesity causes high cholesterol levels, it’s – more often than not – the levels of “bad cholesterol” (LDL cholesterol) that tick upward. But levels of “good cholesterol” – or HDL cholesterol – on the other hand, are often low.
And there’s more: obesity can elevate the amount of small dense LDL particles in the bloodstream. These LDL particles – very small in size, as their name suggests – can easily slip into the walls of your arteries (the vessels that carry blood from the heart to the rest of the body), prompting a buildup of plaque. The affected arteries frequently harden and narrow as a result, significantly slowing the flow of blood – a condition known as atherosclerosis. Alarmingly, the risk of suffering from a stroke or heart attack shoots up when your arteries are in this condition.
Small dense LDL particles can easily slip into the walls of your arteries, causing a buildup of plaque. The affected arteries frequently harden and narrow as a result (illustrated here), significantly slowing the flow of blood. Source: National Library of Medicine (US). Genetics Home Reference. Illustration: Plaque in an artery wall. (Cited Jan 31, 2019.)
With all this in mind, then, if you are overweight or obese it’s important to routinely check your cholesterol levels (which you can do at home with EverlyWell’s Cholesterol and Lipids Test). And if your cholesterol levels are in fact too high, consult with your health care provider on the next steps to take that’d be best for you.
Has someone in your family had a heart attack even though they were fairly young? If your answer is “Yes,” you could be at a risk for “familial hypercholesterolemia” – an inherited, genetic disorder that’s characterized by high cholesterol levels at a young age and a higher-than-normal risk of heart disease. (Also: if you answered “Yes” to that question, consider checking your cholesterol levels with an at-home test kit – and, of course, consult with your doctor.)
If someone in your family has had a heart attack even though they were fairly young, you may be at a risk for “familial hypercholesterolemia” – an inherited, genetic disorder that’s characterized by high cholesterol levels at a young age.
In women, for example, untreated familial hypercholesterolemia leads to a 30% risk of a coronary event (such as a heart attack) by age 60. That risk climbs to 50% in men by age 50.
So what is it exactly about this genetic disorder that causes cholesterol levels to reach disturbingly-high levels?
To answer that, we need to talk about something called “LDL receptors.” LDL receptors are special devices on the surface of many of your body’s cells. Their job description is straightforward: to catch particles of LDL cholesterol flowing in the bloodstream and take them inside the cell (where the LDL cholesterol is broken down).
In this way, LDL receptors continually clear LDL cholesterol from the bloodstream – so there’s much less LDL cholesterol around to gum up the arteries with plaque.
But if you have familial hypercholesterolemia, your cells don’t have very many of these receptors – so particles of LDL cholesterol build up in your bloodstream faster than they can be cleared away.
How do you know if you’ve inherited this disorder?
A cholesterol level that’s much higher than average for your age is one clue (note that you can check your cholesterol levels at home with a physician-approved test kit).
However, if you’re concerned about familial hypercholesterolemia, you should definitely consult with your doctor – since only a qualified health care professional will be in a position to make an accurate diagnosis.