Hyperlipidemia (High Cholesterol)

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: February 2024

Hyperlipidemia, also known as high cholesterol, is a common health condition that affects millions of people worldwide. In fact, about 2 in 5 adults in the United States live with high cholesterol.1,2

High cholesterol does not show noticeable symptoms – at least not at first. Knowing how high cholesterol affects your body can help you take preventive measures to maintain good health.1,2

What is hyperlipidemia?

Hyperlipidemia is a medical term that refers to elevated levels of lipids. Lipids are fatty substances produced in the liver and found in the blood. Cholesterol is an example of a lipid.2-4

Cholesterol has important jobs in the body. It helps to digest food and produce certain hormones. There are 2 types of cholesterol:2-5

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol – Often referred to as "bad" cholesterol. This type of cholesterol builds up on artery walls, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol – Known as "good" cholesterol. This type helps get rid of excess LDL cholesterol in the arteries. This reduces the risk of heart disease.

Cholesterol is measured by taking into account your LDL, HDL, and triglyceride levels. Triglycerides are another type of lipid in the blood. If your total blood cholesterol is 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) or more, you have high cholesterol.1,2,5

How does high cholesterol affect the body?

When there is excess cholesterol in the bloodstream, it can slowly build up on the walls of blood vessels. This forms plaques. Over time, these plaques can narrow the arteries, restricting blood flow and increasing the risk of heart diseases like:2-5

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Peripheral artery disease

High cholesterol is often referred to as the “silent killer.” This is because it can progress without any noticeable symptoms until it is very severe. The only way to find out if you have high cholesterol is to get your cholesterol levels checked by a health professional. They will do a lipid panel, which is a blood test that measures total cholesterol levels.1,5

What causes high cholesterol?

Many things can cause high cholesterol, such as diet, lifestyle choices, and genetics. Regular health checkups that include cholesterol screenings are crucial for early detection and management.2-6

Types of hyperlipidemia

The 2 primary types of hyperlipidemia are familial and acquired.4

Familial hyperlipidemia

This type is caused by genetic factors. Familial hypercholesterolemia is an example of primary hyperlipidemia. This is when the body is unable to remove LDL cholesterol. Another example is familial hypertriglyceridemia. This is when triglyceride levels are too high.4

Acquired hyperlipidemia

This type of high cholesterol is often a result of other health conditions like diabetes or obesity. Lifestyle habits like a diet high in saturated and trans fats, lack of exercise, or smoking also can contribute to this type of high cholesterol.4

Who is at risk for high cholesterol?

High cholesterol can affect anyone, but certain genetic and environmental factors increase the risk of developing hyperlipidemia. They include:4-7

  • Older age
  • Family history of hyperlipidemia (which can cause high cholesterol at a young age)
  • Sedentary lifestyle and not getting enough exercise
  • Poor diet
  • Being overweight
  • Chronic stress
  • Smoking
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Other medical conditions like diabetes, thyroid problems, and chronic kidney disease

What is the prognosis of high cholesterol?

High cholesterol outcomes depend on early detection, lifestyle changes, and proper treatment. A heart-healthy diet, regular exercise, and avoiding tobacco can greatly improve cholesterol levels. In some cases, doctors may prescribe medicine to help control cholesterol levels. Getting your cholesterol under control can help you live a long life.2,5

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