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Side Effects of "Too High Cholesterol"

Here’s what happens when cholesterol levels get too high.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Having high cholesterol can be scary, but knowing the signs and risk factors can make all the difference. "There are absolutely proven ways to manage high cholesterol," says interventional cardiologist Leslie Cho, MD. "And even if you have a significant family history, you can prevent heart disease." Here are the side effects of too high cholesterol, according to experts. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


How High Is Too High?

high cholesterol

"For people who have plaque in their arteries or who have other factors that put them at risk for cardiovascular disease, doctors recommend an ideal LDL level well below 70 mg/dl," says Seth Shay Martin, M.D., M.H.S. "For those without risk factors who have an LDL level at or above 190 mg/dl, the recommendation is to get this level down to below 100 mg/dl. People age 40 to 75 who are living with diabetes and whose LDL is at 70 or above may need medication."


Causes of High Cholesterol

Obese woman laying on sofa with smartphone eating chips

While high cholesterol can be hereditary (known as familial hypercholesterolemia), it's not the most common cause. "If your cholesterol is high, odds are you got it the old-fashioned way through a questionable diet, a lack of exercise and the process of aging," says Dr. Cho. "You can have people at age 18 have a heart attack because of it."


Women and High Cholesterol

overweight woman at home lying on the floor, laptop in front of her, prepared to work out on mat according to video

Women make up to 60% of all stroke deaths, according to the American Heart Association. "It's necessary to have guidelines specifically for women," says neurologist Dolora Wisco, MD. "If you have high blood pressure, diabetes or cholesterol, or if you're taking oral contraceptive pills­ and smoking, those are major risk factors that you need to pay attention to if you are female."


Dangerous Side Effects of High Cholesterol

closeup man's chest heart attack

High cholesterol can lead to heart disease and stroke, doctors warn. "The main risk associated with high cholesterol is coronary heart disease (CHD)," says the Cleveland Clinic. "Your blood cholesterol level has a lot to do with your chances of getting heart disease. If your cholesterol is too high, it builds up on the walls of your arteries. Over time, this buildup is known as atherosclerosis. This condition causes arteries to become narrowed, and the narrowed blood vessels reduce blood flow to the heart. This can result in angina (chest pain) from not enough blood flow getting to the heart, or a heart attack in cases when a blood vessel is blocked completely and the heart muscle begins to die."


How To Lower High Cholesterol


The first step is to get your blood tested to see exactly where your cholesterol levels are. "Even though the levels of LDL, or 'bad' cholesterol in your blood may be normal, the type of LDL you have may be more dangerous," says preventive cardiologist Haitham Ahmed, MD, MPH. The LDL cholesterol may be stickier than usual, which can lead to more plaque buildup. It may be smaller and denser, which can mean more particles. However, these are advanced parameters that we test for in patients who really need it… For all of us, however, it's important to know our LDL cholesterol levels." What about lifestyle factors? "A lot of people are surprised to know that how you eat can affect your risk for a stroke," says Brett Cucchiara, MD, Professor of Neurology at Penn Medicine. "There's good data showing that a Mediterranean-style diet can help reduce your risk. Exercising and staying active is so important to keeping your risk of stroke low."

Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more about Ferozan