What are the effects of high cholesterol?

Medically reviewed on February 22, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


If you have high cholesterol, it can be difficult to imagine the consequences it may have on the body and overall health. The molecules in the blood are so small, you may never even think of them on a day-to-day basis. There are, after all, very few external symptoms of a high cholesterol level. Without taking a cholesterol test to check levels, you may never even know if there is an issue.

Yet, it’s important to be aware of the detrimental impact high cholesterol can have on health. So, what are the effects of high cholesterol? As it turns out, high cholesterol can have far-reaching consequences for health, affecting the cardiovascular, endocrine, circulatory, and even digestive systems.

Understanding the impact of high cholesterol is an essential step in learning how to manage and improve health. Below, we’ll outline what cholesterol is, how it affects different parts of the body, and how to prevent the negative effects of high cholesterol.

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What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance found in the blood. The body needs some cholesterol to function, but excess cholesterol can have negative effects on health.

There are two different kinds of cholesterol to be aware of:

  • The “bad” kind of cholesterol is known as low-density lipoprotein, or LDL. If LDL cholesterol levels are too high, it can build up in the arteries and increase the risk for other health problems.
  • The “good” kind of cholesterol is known as high-density lipoprotein, or HDL. HDL cholesterol helps to stabilize the levels of LDL in the blood by sending it back to the liver, where the body’s natural cholesterol is produced. If HDL cholesterol levels are too low, it can result in higher levels of LDL.

When you get a lab test to measure total cholesterol levels, it typically will include both HDL and LDL cholesterol, as well as triglycerides, another non-cholesterol form of fat that can increase the risk for certain health conditions.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, we’ll look at how high cholesterol can impact health.

Cholesterol and the Heart

Living with high cholesterol can significantly influence heart health. One of the greatest risks is coronary heart disease, also known as coronary artery disease. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), this condition occurs due to a buildup of plaque within the coronary arteries, the blood vessels that supply oxygenated blood to the heart [1].

Plaque is composed of the various substances within the blood, including fats, calcium, cell waste, and—you guessed it—cholesterol. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), this resulting buildup is called atherosclerosis, in which the plaque becomes hardened and narrows the blood vessels [2].

If there is a high level of plaque buildup within the arteries, it can cause chest pain due to a lack of blood flow to the heart. If the plaque forms a clot and blocks the blood flow completely, it can cause a heart attack, resulting in damage to the heart muscle or even death.

Cholesterol and the Brain

Cholesterol can also contribute to the buildup of plaque in other parts of the body. The American Heart Association (AHA) explains that if atherosclerosis (the buildup of plaque) occurs within blood vessels in the brain, it can result in a blood clot that blocks blood flow to the brain, called a thrombus. Another form of blood clot, called an embolus, may form in a blood vessel elsewhere in the body and travel to the brain.

In either case, the result is known as an ischemic stroke, and like a heart attack, it can have very serious implications. Without blood flow to carry oxygen to the brain, the brain cells can suffer damage or even die, leading to risk factors such as disability, brain damage, or even death.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, although there are other forms of stroke, nearly 87 percent of all strokes are ischemic [3]. This means that managing cholesterol and preventing the buildup of plaque in blood vessels can play a vital role in reducing the likelihood of suffering a stroke during one’s lifetime.

Cholesterol and The Lower Limbs

Aside from the heart and brain, too much cholesterol can also contribute to the buildup of plaque in other blood vessels, known as peripheral artery disease (PAD). The peripheral arteries are responsible for supplying blood from the heart to the lower limbs.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute notes that about 25 percent of people who suffer from PAD experience symptoms affecting the feet and legs, including [4]:

  • Poor blood flow
  • Chronic pain
  • Weakness
  • Numbness
  • Mobility issues
  • Infection

According to the NHLBI, having peripheral artery disease can be a sign that there is a buildup of plaque in other areas, including the heart and brain.

Cholesterol and Blood Pressure

Another possible complication of high cholesterol is high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. High blood pressure occurs when atherosclerosis (the buildup of plaque) causes arteries to harden and become narrower, making it more difficult for the heart to supply blood to the rest of the body. The result is an increase in the pressure at which the blood moves through the arteries.

High blood pressure can have many health implications of its own, including eye damage and kidney disease, and is linked to a greater risk of stroke, heart attack, and peripheral arterial disease [5].

Cholesterol and Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is another condition linked to complications with high cholesterol. In individuals with this condition, the body’s ability to naturally regulate glucose, or sugar, in the blood is impaired, resulting in high blood sugar. Untreated diabetes can have its own health effects, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Vision loss

According to the Cleveland Clinic, those with diabetes are more likely to have higher levels of LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglycerides and lower levels of HDL (good cholesterol), putting them at higher risk for other effects of high cholesterol [6].

However, the relationship between type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol seems to go both ways. One study found that the risk of developing type 2 diabetes increased significantly in individuals with high levels of LDL cholesterol [7].

Cholesterol and The Digestive System

Some cholesterol is necessary for the digestive system. It aids in the production of bile, a fluid made by the liver that breaks down the fats you eat before they are digested by the body, and the bile stored in the gallbladder [8].

If bile contains excess cholesterol, however, it can form hard deposits within the gallbladder, known as gallstones [9]. Although some gallstones cause no symptoms, others can be extremely painful and/or require surgical removal of the gallbladder.

While much of the cholesterol in the bile is produced by the liver, the Mayo Clinic notes that eating a high-cholesterol diet can increase the risk of gallstones.

Long-term Effects of High Cholesterol

If you have high cholesterol, it can be challenging to get started in making the changes necessary to achieve lower cholesterol levels. However, it’s important not to wait to do something about it. Research has shown that the number of years you live with elevated cholesterol levels can increase its negative effects on health over time [10].

Among the study’s participants, those who spent at least 10 years with high cholesterol had a 16.5 percent greater likelihood of developing a risk factor for heart disease. With each decade of high cholesterol levels, that risk increased by 39 percent.

It’s plain to see that paying attention to cholesterol levels sooner, rather than later, can be beneficial in the long term—even if you’re relatively young now.

Preventing High Cholesterol

In considering the possible effects, it’s clear why preventing elevated cholesterol levels should be a top priority in maintaining health. The good news is, there are several options to prevent and to help treat high cholesterol, which, in turn, can decrease the likelihood of suffering the ill effects on the rest of the body.

One way to treat high cholesterol is by medication. The most common form of cholesterol-lowering medications are statins, which work by stabilizing the amount of cholesterol in the blood and reducing the amount produced by the liver [11].

If you are looking into how to reduce cholesterol without medication, depending on cholesterol levels, your healthcare provider may also recommend certain lifestyle changes to help manage your health, including:

  • Eating a healthy diet low in trans fats and saturated fats
  • Getting plenty of exercise
  • Avoiding cigarettes and excessive alcohol
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

In addition to helping you achieve lower cholesterol, healthy eating and healthy lifestyle changes can also help prevent high cholesterol in the first place.

Stay on Top of Cholesterol with Everlywell

When you’re seeking to improve overall health, balancing levels of cholesterol can have a major impact. Preventing high cholesterol by maintaining healthy eating and lifestyle changes can reduce the overall likelihood of suffering any of the related effects.

If you already have a high level of cholesterol, lifestyle changes and treatment options can reduce the possible impact. But what if you’re not sure of your current levels of cholesterol, or whether it may be affecting your overall health?

Finding out is easy. With the Everlywell Cholesterol & Lipids Test, you can find out and assess cholesterol levels from the comfort of your own home, giving you the tools you need to understand and take steps toward achieving better health.

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References

1. Coronary Heart Disease. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. URL. Accessed February 22, 2022.

2. Atherosclerosis. American Heart Association. URL. Accessed February 22, 2022.

3. Stroke: Understanding Stroke. Cleveland Clinic. URL. Accessed February 22, 2022.

4. Peripheral Artery Disease. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. URL. Accessed February 22, 2022.

5. Hypertension (Normal Vs. High Blood Pressure). Cleveland Clinic. URL. Accessed February 22, 2022.

6. Diseases Caused By High Cholesterol. Cleveland Clinic. URL. Accessed February 22, 2022.

7. Janghorbani M, Soltanian N, Amini M, Aminorroaya A. Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and risk of type 2 diabetes: The Isfahan diabetes prevention study. Diabetes & Metabolic Syndrome: Clinical Research & Reviews. 2018;12(5):715-719.

8. Bile. MedlinePlus. URL. Accessed February 22, 2022.

9. Gallstones - Symptoms and causes. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed February 22, 2022.

10. Navar-Boggan AM, Peterson ED, D’Agostino RB, Neely B, Sniderman AD, Pencina MJ. Hyperlipidemia in Early Adulthood Increases Long-Term Risk of Coronary Heart Disease. Circulation. 2015;131(5):451-458.

11. The Scoop on Statins: What Do You Need to Know? Million Hearts (managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). URL. Accessed February 22, 2022.

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