Causes and Risk Factors of Hyperlipidemia

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

High cholesterol is extremely common, not only in the United States but also around the globe. The condition involves high levels of cholesterol in the blood. In the medical community, it is known as hyperlipidemia.1,2

Cholesterol is a fatty substance produced in the liver that is crucial for various functions in the body. For example, it produces hormones and helps digest food. But when cholesterol levels get too high, they can lead to health complications.1,2

How does high cholesterol affect the body?

High cholesterol can have profound effects on the body. Excess cholesterol in the blood can lead to plaque buildup on the artery walls. Over time, this plaque buildup narrows the arteries. Narrowed arteries make it harder for blood to flow, which increases the risk of:1,2

  • Hardened arteries (atherosclerosis)
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Stroke

Unfortunately, there are no early warning signs and symptoms of high cholesterol. When symptoms do occur, the damage has already been done. This is why knowing your risk level and staying on top of your health checkups are vital.1,2

What causes high cholesterol?

The cause of high cholesterol depends on the type of hyperlipidemia a person has. There are 2 main types of hyperlipidemia: familial and acquired.1-3

Familial hyperlipidemia

Familial hyperlipidemia is a genetic condition. People with the condition inherit a tendency to have high cholesterol from their parents. Specific gene changes (mutations) affect their bodies’ ability to regulate cholesterol levels. People with this type of high cholesterol often have higher cholesterol levels from a younger age.3,4

Acquired hyperlipidemia

Acquired hyperlipidemia often is linked to lifestyle and behavioral factors. Causes of acquired hyperlipidemia can include:1-4

  • Unhealthy diet and eating habits
  • Lack of exercise
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Existing medical conditions like diabetes, thyroid issues, and chronic kidney disease

Also, some medicines can cause cholesterol levels to increase. These drugs include:2

  • Diuretics
  • Steroids
  • Hormonal birth control
  • Beta-blockers

Risk factors for high cholesterol

Several things can increase your risk of developing high cholesterol. Some of these you can control, and others you cannot. They include:2-4

  • Family history of high cholesterol or heart disease
  • Older age – High cholesterol increases with age.
  • Gender – High cholesterol is more common in men than in women (before menopause).
  • Sedentary lifestyle, or sitting too much
  • Eating too much trans and saturated fats – These unhealthy fats contribute to the “bad” cholesterol (LDL) that builds up in the arteries.
  • Smoking – Smoking reduces “good” cholesterol (HDL) in your blood, which can lead to increased bad cholesterol.
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Chronic stress

Managing and preventing high cholesterol

The good news is that high cholesterol can often be managed and even prevented with lifestyle changes. But the only way to know if you have high cholesterol is to get screened.1,5

Adopting a heart-healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can help manage cholesterol levels. Regular exercise is another key factor. It not only helps with weight management but also improves how the heart works. In some cases, doctors may prescribe medicine to help lower cholesterol.2,5

Avoiding smoking and limiting alcohol are other steps you can take to manage and prevent high cholesterol. If you have a family history of high cholesterol, get regular health checkups to ensure your cholesterol stays in a healthy range.2,4,5

Prioritize your heart health

Whether familial or acquired, high cholesterol can be managed with a healthy lifestyle, regular exercise, and taking medicine as prescribed by your doctor. Recognizing your risk factors and taking proactive steps can go a long way in preventing high cholesterol and related health problems. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns or want to get your cholesterol checked.2,3,5

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