Diagnosing High Cholesterol
If you are over the age of 20, it is a good idea to have your cholesterol levels checked periodically, at least every 5 years. High cholesterol is an asymptomatic illness, so there is no way to know that it is a problem unless blood tests are done. If levels are too high, it is important to lower them, as this can reduce the risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Doctors can assess the levels of cholesterol with simple blood tests that check lipoprotein levels. The most common indices are LDL (low density lipoprotein cholesterol-“bad cholesterol”), HDL (high density lipoprotein cholesterol-“good cholesterol”), triglycerides (very low density lipoprotein), and overall cholesterol level.
The blood test will typically be accompanied by a full physical examination, which will also include components such as medical and familial history, heart rate, listening to the pulse, and taking blood pressure measurements. If the cholesterol level is too high, and especially if it is in conjunction with other risk factors for heart disease, then treatment will be called for. The front line of treatment is typically a change in diet and exercise. If these lifestyle changes are not effective at lowering cholesterol, then a variety of medications with different mechanisms can be deployed.
Once the cholesterol numbers have been ascertained, the doctor can recommend whether a heart-healthy diet, cardiovascular exercises, or medicines are indicated. Common medications that may be indicated include statins, which interfere with cholesterol production in the liver, or medicines that block the absorption of cholesterol from foods in the small intestine. The chances of developing cardiovascular disease can be greatly attenuated by lowering the LDL number and increasing the HDL number.
HDL is desirable primarily because its job in the body is to remove LDL from the bloodstream, carrying it to the liver. This essentially cleans the blood vessels of cholesterol. LDL cholesterol, on the other hand, is the variety that becomes attached to blood vessel walls, increasing the chances for a heart attack. The buildup of cholesterol on the arteries, called plaque, can also damage the arteries themselves, causing them to harden and become narrower. This condition is called arteriosclerosis or atherosclerosis. If a chunk of plaque breaks free from the artery wall, it can migrate in the bloodstream, causing a heart attack or stroke.
Following the diagnosis of high cholesterol, it may take several months of lifestyle changes and/or medication use to effectively lower the levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream. However, by doing so, a person can greatly reduce their risk for dangerous conditions and live a longer life.