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High Cholesterol Has No Symptoms But Here's How to Tell if You Have It

What to know about high cholesterol and how to check if you have it.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

You know the saying too much of a good thing can turn bad and that's the case with cholesterol. Our body produces what we need to perform vital jobs like building cells and making hormones. But too much can clog artery highways and create roadblocks for blood to travel through your body. When that happens you're at serious risk for major health issues like heart disease, which is the leading cause of death and stroke.

The thing people don't realize about high cholesterol is that there's usually no warning signs. Many don't know they have the common condition until something like a heart attack happens. High cholesterol is a prevalent problem that affects more people than you might think. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Nearly 94 million U.S. adults age 20 or older have total cholesterol levels higher than 200 mg/dL. Twenty-eight million adults in the United States have total cholesterol levels higher than 240 mg/dL." 

Knowing the causes of high cholesterol, how to help prevent it, lifestyle choices that make a difference and how to check if your levels are key to living a longer and healthier life. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with Sean Marchese, MS, RN, a registered nurse at The Mesothelioma Center with a background in oncology clinical trials and over 20 years of direct patient care experience who explains what to know about cholesterol and how to tell if you have too much. As always, please consult with your physician for medical advice. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Why High Cholesterol Usually Doesn't Show Symptoms

doctor mature patient checkup

High cholesterol is often called a "silent killer" because there's usually no signs that indicate you have the condition. "According to Vail Health,  "A 110-pound 5-foot-4 woman could have a cholesterol count of 250 while an overweight woman's cholesterol could fall well within the normal range. Simply knowing your numbers isn't enough. The American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology have cholesterol guidelines that factor in race age gender and more. The equation calculates the risk of heart attack or stroke within the next 10 years. Knowing your risks could make the difference in how you approach your health and lifestyle."

Marchese explains, "High cholesterol does not cause noticeable symptoms because by the time it has caused enough damage, it's usually enough to trigger an emergency event, such as a heart attack or stroke. High cholesterol leads to plaque deposits on vital arteries that deliver oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. By the time that plaque has accumulated to the point that it limits blood flow, the body can no longer compensate."


What Causes High Cholesterol?

man eating a burger

Marchese tells us, "Some cholesterol your body produces is necessary for the formation of cell membranes, hormones and vitamin D. However, low-density lipoproteins, or LDL, is a type of cholesterol that the body does not use and deposits as plaque in blood vessels. Foods that contain high amounts of fat increase the level of LDL cholesterol in your system. Your body can reverse the effects of LDL cholesterol through diet and exercise, but if plaque deposits outpace the rate you can remove them, you end up with deadly complications, such as heart attack and stroke."

Mayo Clinic states, "Factors that can increase your risk of unhealthy cholesterol levels include:

–Poor diet. Eating too much saturated fat or trans fats can result in unhealthy cholesterol levels. Saturated fats are found in fatty cuts of meat and full-fat dairy products. Trans fats are often found in packaged snacks or desserts.

Obesity. Having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater puts you at risk of high cholesterol.

–Lack of exercise. Exercise helps boost your body's HDL, the "good," cholesterol.

–Smoking. Cigarette smoking may lower your level of HDL, the "good," cholesterol.

–Alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol can increase your total cholesterol level.

–Age. Even young children can have unhealthy cholesterol, but it's much more common in people over 40. As you age, your liver becomes less able to remove LDL cholesterol."


Myths About Cholesterol

Blood Cholesterol Report Test Healthcare

According to Marchese, "One of the most common myths about cholesterol is that people should avoid all types of cholesterol. High-density cholesterol is not an issue because your liver can process it into useful structures, such as cell membranes and hormones. However, low-density lipoproteins cause plaque buildup, which can devastate the circulatory system. Some people associate high cholesterol with high blood pressure or high blood sugar symptoms. 

High cholesterol and high blood pressure can be related, but they rarely produce noticeable symptoms. Seeing a physician regularly for an annual check-up is essential for knowing whether your cholesterol is reaching unhealthy levels before it becomes a much more significant problem. Another myth is that some people try to reverse poor cholesterol with diet and exercise alone. In some cases, which may be due to genetic factors, statins or other medications for cholesterol may be necessary."


High Cholesterol is Serious


Marchese emphasizes, "Managing cholesterol is extremely important because it affects the vital portions of your circulatory system, which feeds organs such as your heart and brain. Uncontrolled cholesterol can lead to blood clots which cause stroke or heart attack and can be deadly. Because cholesterol rarely causes noticeable symptoms before it becomes an emergency, it's vital to get regular check-ups that include blood cholesterol levels."

Cleveland Clinic states, "Hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol) can be very serious if it's not controlled. As long as high cholesterol is untreated, you're letting plaque accumulate inside of your blood vessels. This can lead to a heart attack or stroke because your blood has a hard time getting through your blood vessels. This deprives your brain and heart of the nutrients and oxygen they need to function. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in Americans."


How to Check for High Cholesterol

closeup doctor's hand holding blood sample for cholesterol

The CDC states, "The only way to know whether you have high cholesterol is to get your cholesterol checked. Your health care team can do a simple blood test, called a "lipid profile," to measure your cholesterol levels…The cholesterol test, or screening, requires a simple blood draw. You may need to fast (not eat or drink) for 8 to 12 hours before your cholesterol test. Be sure to ask your doctor how to prepare for the test."

Marchese explains, "Symptoms of high cholesterol are infrequent, so the best way to know if your cholesterol is outside the normal range is to see your doctor and have them perform regular blood level measurements. If you have a family history of high cholesterol, you may be more prone to elevated cholesterol levels and should have them monitored by your primary care physician. Additionally, if you know you have a poor diet or infrequent activity levels, you may be at a higher risk of elevated or unhealthy cholesterol levels."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather