What is Cholesterol?
High cholesterol is a condition characterised by elevated levels of cholesterol in the blood, which poses a significant threat to one’s overall health and well-being.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is vital for various bodily functions, but an excess of it can accumulate in the arteries, leading to the formation of plaque, which narrows and clogs the blood vessels. This, in turn, increases the risk of serious cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attacks and strokes.
Given its silent and often asymptomatic nature, early detection and treatment of high cholesterol is important in preventing these life-threatening complications and maintaining a healthy, long-lasting quality of life.
What heart conditions are associated with high cholesterol?
High cholesterol is closely associated with several heart-related conditions and cardiovascular diseases, which can be life-threatening. Some of the primary heart conditions linked to high cholesterol include:
- Atherosclerosis: High cholesterol levels contribute to the buildup of fatty deposits, or plaque, in the arteries.
- Coronary Artery Disease (CAD): CAD is a result of atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart muscle. This can lead to chest pain (angina) and, in severe cases, heart attacks.
- Stroke: Elevated cholesterol levels can lead to the formation of plaques in the carotid arteries, which supply blood to the brain. These plaques can rupture and cause a blood clot that leads to a stroke.
- Peripheral Arterial Disease (or Peripheral Vascular Disease) (PAD/PVD): PAD/PVD occurs when atherosclerosis affects the arteries that supply blood to the extremities, typically the legs. This can result in reduced blood flow, pain, and impaired mobility.
- Hypertension (High Blood Pressure): High cholesterol can contribute to the development of high blood pressure, which is a significant risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
- Heart Failure: Over time, atherosclerosis and other complications related to high cholesterol can weaken the heart, leading to heart failure, where the heart cannot pump blood effectively.
What is the most effective treatment for high cholesterol?
High cholesterol is typically managed through a combination of lifestyle changes and, if necessary, medication. Treatment options for high cholesterol in Melbourne include the following:
A heart-healthy diet is fundamental in managing high cholesterol. This involves:
- Reducing saturated fats and trans fats found in fried foods, processed snacks, and fatty cuts of meat.
- Limiting dietary cholesterol intake, primarily from animal-based products.
- Increasing consumption of fibre-rich foods, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
- Including sources of healthy fats, like avocados, nuts, and fatty fish, which contain omega-3 fatty acids.
Physical activity can help raise “good” HDL cholesterol levels and lower “bad” LDL cholesterol. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week.
If you are overweight, losing excess weight can have a positive impact on cholesterol levels. Even a modest weight loss can lead to improvements.
In cases where lifestyle changes alone aren’t sufficient or for individuals with very high cholesterol levels, healthcare providers may prescribe cholesterol-lowering medications. Common medications include:
- Statins: These drugs are highly effective at reducing LDL cholesterol levels and decreasing the risk of heart disease.
- Fibrates: They mainly lower triglycerides and may raise HDL cholesterol.
- Ezetimibe: This reduces the absorption of cholesterol in food which is eaten from the stomach and gut and into the body.
- Bile Acid Sequestrants: These medications help remove LDL cholesterol from the blood by binding to bile acids in the digestive system. However, they are not prescribed very often anymore as newer agents have surpassed them.
- PCSK-9 Inhibitors: These have been available in recent years and are injections into the skin, taken every few weeks, which lower the production of cholesterol in the body.
- Small interfering RNA: These drugs have only recently been available, but are also injections into the skin, taken every few months, and are likely to be more frequently used in the future.
Smoking can lower HDL cholesterol and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Quitting smoking is an essential part of cholesterol management.
Regular check-ups and cholesterol screenings are essential to track your progress and adjust your treatment plan if necessary. Monitoring helps ensure that your cholesterol levels remain within a healthy range.
What tests diagnose heart problems caused by high cholesterol?
Several tests can help diagnose heart problems that are caused or exacerbated by high cholesterol levels. These include:
- Lipid Profile: This blood test measures various types of cholesterol, including total cholesterol, LDL (low-density lipoprotein), HDL (high-density lipoprotein), and triglycerides. An elevated LDL cholesterol level and low HDL cholesterol level are indicators of increased cardiovascular risk.
- Coronary Angiography: In this invasive procedure, a contrast dye is injected into the coronary arteries, and X-ray images are taken to assess the degree of blockages caused by atherosclerosis. It’s often performed when severe blockages are suspected.
- CT Angiography (CTA): A non-invasive imaging test that uses computed tomography (CT) technology to visualise the coronary arteries and identify blockages or plaques.
- Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG): This test records the electrical activity of the heart and can detect irregularities, including those caused by reduced blood flow due to coronary artery disease.
- Stress Tests: These tests, such as the exercise stress test or stress echocardiogram, monitor the heart’s response to stress and can reveal abnormalities in blood flow, especially when the heart is under increased demand during physical activity.
- Echocardiogram: This ultrasound test creates images of the heart and can assess its pumping ability, as well as detect structural issues or areas with reduced blood flow.
- CT Calcium Scoring: This test quantifies the amount of calcium buildup in the coronary arteries, which is a marker for atherosclerosis.
- MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): Cardiac MRI can provide detailed images of the heart, helping identify structural problems, evaluate blood flow, and assess the impact of atherosclerosis.
- Carotid Ultrasound: This test examines the carotid arteries in the neck and can detect blockages or plaques that may indicate a higher risk of stroke.
- Blood Pressure Measurement: Regular blood pressure monitoring is essential, as high blood pressure often coexists with high cholesterol and increases the risk of heart problems.
What are the symptoms of high cholesterol?
High cholesterol is often referred to as a “silent” condition because it typically doesn’t cause noticeable symptoms on its own. In most cases, the effects of high cholesterol develop gradually over time, leading to cardiovascular issues without clear warning signs including:
- Chest Pain (Angina)
- Heart Attack
- Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD)
Where can I go if I need treatment for heart conditions caused by high cholesterol?
You can receive treatment for a wide range of heart conditions caused by high cholesterol at HeartWest, the largest cardiology group in the western and northwestern corridors of Melbourne, with 4 major locations and 3 satellite sites.
At HeartWest, our qualified experts will provide you with high quality cardiology care. You will experience nothing but professionalism, care and courtesy; from your first interaction with our staff, to going through tests, procedures and consultations.
Our cardiologists have expertise in all fields of adult cardiology, including;
- General cardiology
- Heart failure
- Cardiac imaging (including stress echocardiography)
- Interventional cardiology
- Electrophysiology & pacing
- Cardiothoracic surgery
Contact us for efficient and affordable specialist heart care services.
How often should I get my cholesterol levels checked in Melbourne?
The frequency of cholesterol screenings may vary based on individual risk factors. In general, it’s recommended to start in early adulthood and continue at regular intervals, such as every 4 to 6 years. Those with higher risk factors may need more frequent monitoring.
What are the risk factors for high cholesterol?
The risk factors for high cholesterol include a combination of genetic, lifestyle, and health-related elements. Family history plays a role, as some individuals inherit a tendency toward high cholesterol levels. Unhealthy dietary choices, particularly those rich in saturated and trans fats, sedentary lifestyles, obesity, and smoking also increase the risk. Age and gender influence cholesterol levels, with men typically having higher levels than premenopausal women. Certain medical conditions, such as diabetes and hypothyroidism, can contribute to elevated cholesterol, as can medications like corticosteroids.
How long does it take to see improvements in cholesterol levels with treatment?
The time it takes to see improvements in cholesterol levels can vary from person to person. Some individuals may see changes within a few weeks, while others may take several months. Health professionals will give you an estimated timeframe for your treatment.