Hypercholesterolemia (High Cholesterol): Symptoms, Causes, Levels

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Hypercholesterolemia, a condition characterized by high levels of cholesterol in the blood, is a silent threat to your health. It often goes unnoticed until it leads to serious health complications such as heart attacks or strokes. This article aims to shed light on this condition, its symptoms, causes, and treatments, with a special focus on familial hypercholesterolemia, a genetic form of high cholesterol.

Hypercholesterolemia (High Cholesterol): Symptoms, Causes, Levels


The Silent Danger of Hypercholesterolemia

Hypercholesterolemia is a condition where there are excessive lipids, or fats, in your blood. It's also known as hyperlipidemia. The body needs a balanced amount of lipids to function optimally. However, when there are too many lipids, the body can't utilize them all, leading to their accumulation in the arteries. These lipids combine with other substances in the blood to form plaque, fatty deposits that can cause serious health problems over time.

High cholesterol doesn't cause any symptoms for most people. You could be a marathon runner and have high cholesterol. You won't start to feel any symptoms until the high cholesterol causes other problems in your body. High cholesterol raises your risk of conditions like peripheral artery disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. High cholesterol is common among people with diabetes.


Genetic High Cholesterol: Familial Hypercholesterolemia

Familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) is a genetic disorder that makes it harder for your body to remove low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, often referred to as "bad cholesterol," from your blood. From childhood, cholesterol builds up along the walls of your arteries and veins, narrowing the passageways and drastically increasing your risk of heart attack or stroke at a very early age.

Familial hypercholesterolemia can affect anyone whose family carries the genetic mutation. However, it's found more frequently in those who are of French Canadian, Ashkenazi Jewish, Lebanese, or Afrikaner descent. The biggest problem with FH is that more than 90% of people who have it haven't been diagnosed, which means you should pay careful attention to your family history.


Hypercholesterolemia Symptoms and Detection

Early detection of high cholesterol levels is key to getting the treatment that can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition to family history of early cardiovascular problems, you may also notice lumps forming under your skin. These fatty deposits are called xanthomas, and are particularly noticeable around tendons in the hands, knees, Achilles tendons, and elbows, and under the skin around your eyes.

Whether or not you have obvious signs of high cholesterol, you should get checked if heart disease runs in your family. A simple blood test is all it takes to see if your cholesterol levels are in the healthy range. A high cholesterol level at a young age is a particular red flag that you may have FH.


Hypercholesterolemia Causes and Treatment

Lifestyle factors and genetics both play a role in causing high cholesterol. Lifestyle factors include smoking, stress, alcohol consumption, lack of physical activity, and diet. However, for people with FH, cholesterol is going to build up in the bloodstream regardless of what they eat due to their genetic inability to handle it.

Fortunately, there are medications that can substantially lower LDL cholesterol levels. The most common treatment for FH is statin drug therapy. Statin drugs work by blocking an enzyme that produces cholesterol in the liver and increases your body's ability to remove cholesterol from the blood. They can lower your LDL cholesterol levels by 50 percent or more.

Other treatment options include medications that block cholesterol from being absorbed from your intestines into your bloodstream, or drugs that block an enzyme called PCSK9, which reduces the amount of LDL cholesterol in your blood. In the most severe FH cases, LDL apheresis may be used. During this procedure, your blood is run through a machine that removes bad cholesterol and returns the "cleaned" blood to your body.


The Genetic Impact of Hypercholesterolemia

If you inherited FH from one parent, there's a 50% chance you'll pass it on to your children. If both of your parents passed the FH trait to you, your children will definitely have FH. That's why it's crucial to get children with a family history tested at an early age and begin cholesterol-reducing treatment for those with FH.

In conclusion, hypercholesterolemia, especially familial hypercholesterolemia, is a silent but serious health threat. Early detection, lifestyle modifications, and appropriate treatment can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and other complications associated with this condition. Always consult with your healthcare provider for personalized advice and treatment options.

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