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Cholesterol problems - the basics

What are cholesterol problems?

Cholesterol is a type of fat found in the body, also known as a lipid.

There are different types of cholesterol. Some types are important for the normal running of the body. Some types can cause heart and circulation problems when there’s excess of these present.

A person who is told they have high cholesterol may be prescribed medicine to help lower their cholesterol, as well as making changes to their diet and the amount of exercise they do.

High cholesterol doesn’t usually cause any noticeable symptoms, and is often picked up during routine medical tests.

Cholesterol types

Cholesterol is carried through the bloodstream by attaching to certain proteins. The combination is called a lipoprotein. There are four different types of lipoproteins that carry cholesterol in the blood:

  • High density lipoprotein (HDL) or " good cholesterol"
  • Low density lipoprotein (LDL) or "bad cholesterol"
  • Very low density lipoproteins (VLDL), which are very bad forms of cholesterol.
  • Chylomicrons, which carry very little cholesterol, but a lot of another fat called triglycerides.

The amount of cholesterol in your bloodstream is important because of its role in various cardiovascular diseases. The risk of developing these conditions is complex and depends not only on how much cholesterol but also what kind of cholesterol you have in your blood. Generally speaking, high levels of LDL - the "bad cholesterol" - are associated with increased risk of developing coronary heart disease; high levels of HDL - or "good cholesterol" - are associated with decreased risk.

Coronary Artery Disease

LDL cholesterol collects in the walls of arteries, contributing to narrowing of the arteries or atherosclerosis. People with atherosclerosis are in turn vulnerable to heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and other problems caused by clogged blood vessels. Even so, some people who have high LDL cholesterol never actually get heart disease, and many heart attack victims do not have abnormally high cholesterol levels.

Cholesterol levels can increase with:

Since no one can predict with certainty which people with high cholesterol will develop heart disease, play it safe and keep your cholesterol levels in check. Heart experts recommend that you reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet, as it is the saturated fat that the liver turns in to cholesterol. Dietary control alone does not work for everyone; some people will also need to take medicines to reduce their cholesterol levels.

Another factor to consider is triglycerides - the form in which your body transports fat. In fact, the bulk of your body's fat is triglycerides. It's not clear whether high triglycerides alone increase your risk of heart disease, but many people with high triglycerides also have high LDL or low HDL levels, which do increase the risk of heart disease.

Low cholesterol levels are not harmful to the body, but may indicate the presence of another medical condition that needs treatment (like hyperthyroidism, malnutrition, pernicious anaemia, or sepsis).

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