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Overview

Quarter pound burgers, French fries, deep-fried chicken … our modern diets are often high in unhealthy fats. Our accessibility to extra fats through food has led to a spike in high cholesterol, which is an unusually high level of fats in the blood. While high cholesterol can lead to potentially life-threatening conditions such as heart attack and stroke, it can also be easily managed through diet, exercise, and medication.

What is high cholesterol?

High cholesterol—also known as hyperlipidemia—is a common condition where the body has unusually high level of fats in the blood. These fats include low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides. They are both absorbed into our bodies from cholesterol-rich foods such as red meat and dairy. Triglycerides are also made in the body when excess calories are converted into fat.

Is there such a thing as low cholesterol?

Yes. Hypolipidemia is a much less common condition where the body has unusually low levels of fats. This can be caused by rare genetic abnormalities or other conditions. Low lipid levels usually don’t pose a problem, but it may indicate a more serious underlying condition such as hyperthyroidism, anemia, or impaired digestion.

How do I know if I have a cholesterol disorder?

Most of the time patients with cholesterol disorders don’t show any symptoms. However, patients with high blood cholesterol can eventually experience chest pain,heart attack, orstrokewhen there is enough buildup of fat along the inner walls of the arteries that carry blood to the heart and brain.

What tests do doctors conduct to diagnose cholesterol disorders?

The standard test for diagnosing cholesterol disorders is called a lipid profile or a lipid panel. A lipid profile measures your total cholesterol (both LDL and HDL cholesterol) and triglycerides. 

How are cholesterol disorders treated?

Cholesterol disorders are a chronic condition best managed through lifestyle changes that reduce fat intake and the amount of excess calories stored in the body as fat. These include:

  • Following a healthy diet, eating foods low in total fat and saturated fat
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Avoiding fast food, junk food, and processed meats
  • Exercising at least 30 minutes for four days a week

Doctors may also prescribe medications to lower the amount of cholesterol in your blood. For instance, statins block a substance created in your liver that produces cholesterol. Statins can also absorb cholesterol trapped in your arteries.

Other medications called “cholesterol absorption inhibitors” lower your cholesterol by limiting your body’s absorption of dietary cholesterol. They are sometimes prescribed in combination with statins.

Medications called “bile-acid-binding resins” can also lower high blood cholesterol. These medications trap bile resins (which contain cholesterol) and prevent them from being reabsorbed in your small intestine.

Your treatment plan will depend on your current lifestyle and the severity of your condition, says Steven Jacoby, MD, a cardiologist with Yale Medicine. “If you're a cholesterol glutton, where you're eating junk all the time and you go on a very good, low fat diet and start exercising, you can lower your cholesterol levels by 30%,” he says. However, patients who are already on a healthy diet, may not see enough benefit from eating healthier. That’s when medications come in. “The lowest dose of the weakest statin can lower cholesterol levels by 20%,” says Dr. Jacoby. “Some high potency drugs can lower it by 50-60%.”

What specialized knowledge does Yale Medicine have in treating cholesterol disorders?

At Yale Medicine, you will be treated by a team of clinicians with wide ranging expertise in nutrition, exercise, or surgery. These medical professionals work in concert to help each patient create the best treatment plan for their condition and circumstance.