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19th January, 20216 min read

What are the health risks of having high cholesterol?

Medical reviewer:Dr Ann Nainan
Author:Caroline Bodian
Last reviewed: 18/01/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

Cholesterol is a type of fat known as a lipid, and your body needs it to function. It’s made by your liver, and it can also come from the food you eat.

However, having too much of a certain type of cholesterol in your blood – known as having high cholesterol – is bad for your health. Over time, high cholesterol can lead to narrowed arteries, which can cause poor circulation in your legs, heart attack and stroke.

If you have high cholesterol, you won’t usually get any symptoms to let you know something’s wrong, so it’s important to get your cholesterol level checked from time to time.

Read on to learn more about the causes of high cholesterol, the health problems it can lead to, and what you can do to reduce your risk.

What causes high cholesterol?

There are several lifestyle factors that can increase your risk of having high cholesterol. But in some cases, it’s to do with genetics – your body just makes too much cholesterol. This can be hereditary, so it’s a good idea to find out if you have a family history of high cholesterol.

Other causes of high cholesterol include:

  • lack of exercise
  • eating too many foods that are high in fat and cholesterol
  • drinking too much alcohol
  • poorly controlled diabetes
  • some kidney and liver diseases
  • underactive thyroid
  • certain medicines, such as oral contraceptives and steroids

What are the health risks of having high cholesterol?

There are actually several types of cholesterol, but the 2 main types are called HDL and LDL.

HDL, often known as ‘good cholesterol’, helps get rid of excess cholesterol in your body, and reduces your risk of heart disease and stroke.

LDL, on the other hand, is known as ‘bad cholesterol’. When the level of LDL in your blood is too high over a long period, it can create fatty deposits in your arteries, which causes them to harden and narrow. This means it can be difficult for blood to get through to your organs. It also increases the chance of a blood clot forming, which could stop blood from moving to your heart or brain – leading to a heart attack or stroke.

If you have high cholesterol, you may develop symptoms of heart disease – such as angina, which causes chest or calf pain that goes away when you’re resting.

It’s thought that high cholesterol may affect fertility, too, as a study found that people with high cholesterol levels took longer to get pregnant. More research is needed, but it’s a good idea to have as healthy a lifestyle as possible to improve your chances of conceiving.

To summarise, high cholesterol can increase your risk of:

What can you do to reduce the risk of high cholesterol?

As high cholesterol causes no symptoms, it’s important to have your blood cholesterol levels checked regularly – every 4 to 6 years is sometimes recommended. Your doctor can do this with a simple blood test.

Getting a cholesterol check is especially important if you have a family history of high cholesterol or cardiovascular disease, are overweight or have high blood pressure or diabetes. You’ll also need a regular check if you’ve been diagnosed with coronary heart disease, a stroke or mini stroke, or peripheral arterial disease.

Other than getting a regular check-up, there are lifestyle changes and medicines that can reduce your risk.

Diet

A healthy, balanced diet can play a big part in managing cholesterol. You should avoid eating too much fatty food and enjoy plenty of fruit, vegetables and wholegrains.

In particular, try to limit your intake of food that’s high in saturated fat – which can increase your levels of bad cholesterol. Examples include sausages and fatty cuts of meat, butter, hard cheese, cakes and biscuits.

On the other hand, small amounts of unsaturated fat can help to increase your levels of good cholesterol. Foods high in unsaturated fat include avocados, nuts, seeds and oily fish.

Some foods are naturally high in cholesterol, including eggs, shellfish and offal. But health experts think it’s more important to avoid saturated fat than these foods, when it comes to managing your cholesterol levels.

Exercise

Regular exercise can also help to keep cholesterol low, and you should aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity every week. Exercise helps stimulate your body to move bad cholesterol to your liver, so that it gets broken down. It will also help you keep to a healthy weight.

Quitting smoking

If you smoke, giving up can help you lower your cholesterol. This is because a chemical in cigarettes, called acrolein, stops bad cholesterol from being taken to your liver to be broken down – leading to high cholesterol in your blood. For this reason, smoking is a big risk factor for both stroke and heart attack.

Medicines

Medicines called statins can help to lower cholesterol, but your doctor will usually only recommend them if lifestyle changes haven’t done enough to reduce your levels or depending on your risk factors. You should discuss the risks and benefits of statins with your doctor.

If your cholesterol level hasn’t come down enough after about 3 months of taking statins, your doctor may recommend changing the dose or trying an alternative medicine.

Key points

  • cholesterol is needed by your body, but too much of a certain type is bad for your health
  • high cholesterol causes a narrowing of your arteries
  • this increases your risk of several serious health problems, including heart attack and stroke
  • smoking increases your risk of high cholesterol, stroke and heart attack
  • eating a healthy diet and doing regular exercise can reduce your risk of high cholesterol
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Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.