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High Cholesterol - what does it mean?

According to Heart UK, over half of all UK adults have raised cholesterol. - but what does this actually mean? We’ve brought together some of the key facts to help you understand what causes high cholesterol and what you can do to reduce the levels in your body.

So firstly, what is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a lipid (or fat chemical) which is made in your body by the liver and which is also found in some foods. We need cholesterol as it’s vital for the functioning of our body, however, too much of it can increase the risk of serious health conditions, such as heart disease.

There are two main forms of cholesterol:

  • LDL (or low-density lipoprotein) - often referred to as “bad” cholesterol because an excess of it can cause a build-up in the artery walls.
  • HDL (high-density lipoprotein) - known as “good” cholesterol, it carries cholesterol away from the cells and back to the liver, where it is broken down or passed out of the body as waste.

As a general rule, the higher the LDL cholesterol level, the greater the potential risk to your health. For more information on what a healthy level of cholesterol looks like, take a look at Heart UK’s guide.

What causes high cholesterol?

There are a variety of different factors which can contribute to having high cholesterol, these can include:

  • Lifestyle factors such as being overweight, eating an unhealthy diet (with lots of saturated fats), high alcohol intake, smoking or lack of physical exercise
  • A family history of a cholesterol-related condition, early heart disease or stroke
  • Age (as you get older, cholesterol levels naturally increase)
  • Underlying medical conditions such as kidney or liver disease or an underactive thyroid gland

What does it mean if you have high cholesterol?

Whilst high cholesterol itself does not cause any symptoms, it can increase your risk of other serious health conditions. This is because cholesterol can build up in the artery wall and restrict the flow of blood around your body. The risk of a blood clot developing can also increase.

High cholesterol can have an effect on your risk of suffering the following:

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Mini stroke (or transient ischaemic attack)
  • Angina

The risk of coronary heart disease, caused by the blockage of your heart’s blood supply, also rises as your blood cholesterol levels go up. This can cause pains known as angina in the front of your chest or arm during physical activity.

So what can I do to reduce my cholesterol levels?

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet which contains lots of fruits and vegetables. Try to replace saturated fats with healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as oily fish, nuts and olive or sunflower oils and spreads
  • Stop smoking. Chemicals found in cigarettes effectively stop the "good cholesterol" (HDL) from transporting fatty deposits to the liver. If you need advice or support on stopping speak to your GP or take look at these tips.
  • Get active! Regular exercise can help to increase the levels of “good cholesterol” (HDL) in your body so it’s important to try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Find out more about incorporating more exercise into your weekly routine here.
  • If you are overweight, try to bring your Body Mass Index (BMI) down into a healthy weight range. For details on how to calculate your BMI and advice and support on losing weight take a look at this guidance from Heart UK.

Other useful links:

Cholesterol FAQs from Heart UK

British Heart Foundation guidance

NHS guide to preventing high cholesterol

Patient UK guide to cholesterol