What is cholesterol?
‘Cholesterol is a white waxy substance which is actually vital for good health as it helps form cell membranes, various hormones, bile salts and Vitamin D,’ explains Baldeesh Rai, a dietician and a dietetic advisor at HEART UK. Cholesterol is a lipid and is mostly made by the liver from the fatty foods we eat. At normal levels (less than 5mmol/L), it doesn’t pose a threat to our health but, says Rai, ‘it becomes a problem if you have too much of it, as too much increases your risk of heart disease.’
What is the difference between good and bad cholesterol?
Cholesterol cannot travel around the body on its own because it does not dissolve in water. Instead, it is carried in the blood by molecules called lipoproteins. The two main lipoproteins are LDL and HDL. ‘High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, or good cholesterol, takes cholesterol away from the arteries to the liver, where it is either broken down or passed from the body as a waste product, whereas Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, or bad cholesterol, takes cholesterol from the liver to the body tissues,’ explains Rai. ‘If there is too much of this type of cholesterol in the blood, it can build up in the walls of the arteries and cause them to narrow. So the ideal situation is to have low levels of LDL and high levels of HDL.’ The only accurate way to measure the amount of both types of cholesterol in the blood is via a blood test, which can be carried out by a doctor, nurse or other healthcare professional.
Are you at risk?
Here are many circumstances or ‘risk factors’ that can contribute to high blood cholesterol, including:
1. Lifestyle factors
‘Cholesterol levels may rise due to preventable, lifestyle-related factors, such as eating a diet rich in saturated fat,’ says Rai. Foods that are high in such fat include red and processed meat, hard cheese, butter and lard, pastry, cakes, biscuits and cream2. Other things that can increase your level of LDL include a lack of exercise or physical activity, smoking, being overweight and regularly drinking too much alcohol.
2. Treatable factors
‘Having an under active thyroid gland or suffering from illnesses such as diabetes or hypertension (high blood pressure) can all cause your cholesterol to be high,’ reveals Rai. These conditions can and should be treated by your doctor.
3. Fixed factors
There are some factors associated with high cholesterol that cannot be changed:
• Family history of early heart disease or stroke. You are more likely to have high cholesterol if you have a close male relative (father or brother) aged under 55 or a female relative (mother or sister) aged under 65 who has had coronary heart disease or stroke.
• A family history of a cholesterol-related condition. For example, if a close relative, such as a parent or sibling, has familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH) – the medical term for high cholesterol that runs in the family – you have a 50 per cent chance of being a sufferer3. According to HEART UK, over 120,000 people in Britain have FH but only 15 per cent of them have been diagnosed with the condition, which causes early heart problems.
• Age: The older you are, the higher your chance of developing atherosclerosis.
• Ethnic group: People of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan descent have an increased risk of high blood cholesterol.
What are the risks of high cholesterol?
As cholesterol builds up in the artery wall it can cause atherosclerosis, a narrowing of the arteries that restricts blood flow to your heart, brain and the rest of your body, which has very serious consequences. ‘A raised level of LDL or bad cholesterol in the blood is the single greatest risk factor for heart disease, a major risk factor in stroke and contributes to almost half of all deaths from Coronary Heart Disease,’ reveals Rai
This information has been souced via NHS Choices http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cholesterol/pages/introduction.aspx 2. www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Cholesterol/Pages/Causes.aspx 3. http://www.netdoctor.co.uk/diseases/facts familialhypercholesterolaemia.htm
By Gabrielle Nathan