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Signs You Have High Cholesterol and Don't Even Know It

Learn how high cholesterol can manifest into serious health issues. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

An estimated 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, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. High cholesterol is a serious concern because it can lead to major issues like stroke, yet many people don't realize their cholesterol levels are too high because oftentimes there's no signs. A blood test is the only way to really know, but high cholesterol can develop into other health problems and 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 shares how. As always, please consult 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 is Common

closeup doctor's hand holding blood sample for cholesterol

Marchese says, "Many factors contribute to high cholesterol, including genetic makeup, diet and activity level. One reason high cholesterol is so common is the presence of trans and saturated fats in many processed foods, such as red meats or full-fat dairy products. Smoking and alcohol increase cholesterol levels, and it can be more difficult for adults over 40 to lower cholesterol."


The Dangers of Not Treating High Cholesterol

HDL cholesterol

Marchese explains, "High levels of LDL, or 'bad' cholesterol, increase the rate of plaque deposits on arteries. As plaque increases within arteries, a condition known as atherosclerosis reduces blood flow, and severe complications can arise. If the arteries that feed your heart from the lungs, the coronary arteries, are affected by high cholesterol, you may experience chest pain, known as angina. If a blood clot forms due to atherosclerosis, it may cause a heart attack by blocking blood flow in the heart. Similarly, a blood clot that blocks blood flow to the brain can cause a stroke."


Get a Blood Test to Check Cholesterol Levels

Cholesterol test

Marchese emphasizes, "High cholesterol itself does not cause symptoms. A blood test is the only way to detect if you have high cholesterol. Instead of symptoms, the effects of high cholesterol manifest as other conditions, such as heart attack or stroke."


Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)


"Coronary artery disease is a type of ischemic heart disease, meaning a lack of oxygen to the coronary arteries," Marchese states. "CAD is the number one cause of death in the United States and occurs when atherosclerosis, caused by high cholesterol, builds up in the coronary arteries. As plaque accumulates, the heart loses access to oxygen-rich blood and becomes weaker. CAD eventually leads to myocardial infarction (heart attack) or heart failure. There are few signs of CAD except chest pain, which is closely associated with a risk of a heart attack."


Hypertension (High Blood Pressure)

high blood pressure

Marchese says, "As cholesterol causes plaque in arteries, blood vessels become stiffer and narrower. The heart must then work harder to pump blood through areas with atherosclerosis. When blood pressure increases, it can further weaken blood vessels as the force of blood against blood vessel walls creates weak spots." 


Leg Cramps or Swelling (Edema)

unrecognized young asian woman had pain at calves sitting on couch at home

According to Marchese, "Peripheral artery disease occurs when atherosclerosis builds up in the arteries of the arms or legs. You may experience more frequent cramping as blood struggles to circulate through the limb. As you get up and move around, pain may subside, but if the issue occurs or is accompanied by fluid build (known as edema), seek medical evaluation for a potential blood clot." 


Carotid Artery Disease


Marchese tells us, "Carotid artery disease affects the vessels along the neck that carry blood to the brain's frontal lobe. As plaque builds up in these arteries, it restricts oxygen to the brain. Carotid artery disease can cause symptoms such as dizziness and confusion and can lead to stroke."

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