Cholesterol is a type of fat in your blood. Most cholesterol is made by your body, but eating fatty foods can lead to high cholesterol levels (mate toto hinuhinu). Your arteries may clog up with the fatty cholesterol, which increases your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Key points about high cholesterol
- You can't tell or feel if you have high cholesterol.
- Having your cholesterol checked is very simple.
- Talk to your doctor or nurse about your overall heart risk and what you can do to keep your heart and cholesterol numbers well controlled.
- With treatment and lifestyle changes, the risks of complications from high cholesterol are much less.
- If you need medication, take it every day as prescribed and ask questions if you don't understand anything.
What is high cholesterol?
High cholesterol is when there's too much bad cholesterol (LDL) and/or not enough good cholesterol (HDL) in your blood.
Image credit: 123rf
What causes high cholesterol?
High cholesterol can have different causes in different people. Some of these causes can be changed and some of them cannot. Even if the underlying cause cannot be changed you can still improve your health by taking steps to lower your cholesterol (see below).
Causes for high cholesterol which can be changed include:
- eating too much refined sugar or unhealthy fats
- not being physically active
- being overweight
Causes for high cholesterol which cannot be changed include:
- your age
- your genes (family history)
- some medical conditions.
How do I know if I have high cholesterol?
High cholesterol usually does not have symptoms. The only way to find out if your cholesterol is high is to have a blood test called a lipid profile. This measures the amount of cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood. Read more about cholesterol testing.
What is the treatment for high cholesterol?
Your doctor will assess your risk of heart attack or stroke based on your lipid profile results and other risk factors such as age, sex, blood pressure, smoking and diabetes. Your doctor may give you medication such as statins to lower cholesterol and reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
What can I do to lower my cholesterol?
You may be able to reduce your cholesterol by making changes to your lifestyle such as:
- eating healthy foods, including lots of fruit and vegetables, low or reduced fat milk, lean meat, nuts and seeds
- avoiding takeaways and deep fried foods, cakes, biscuits, pastries and chips
- reducing red meat, cheese and butter
- staying at a healthy weight
- exercising regularly – being active for at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week
- not drinking too much alcohol
- eating healthy fats.
There are various kinds of fats which come from different food sources and have variable effects on LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
- Trans fats are found in commercially fried foods, snacks and baked goods. They are also called man made fats and are the worst kind for your health. They have the effect of raising LDL, and lowering HDL and should be avoided if possible.
- Saturated fats are found in red meat, cheese, butter, fried and baked goods and some vegetable oils. They are also not good for your health and have the effect of increasing LDL cholesterol.
- Monounsaturated fats are found in nuts, olives, avocado and olive and canola oils. They can help lower LDL cholesterol and are a good source of fat, especially if they are used to replace saturated fats.,
- Polyunsaturated fats (with Omega-6) are found in corn, soybean and safflower margarine and oils. They help to lower LDL but may also decrease HDL cholesterol if consumed in large amounts.
- Polyunsaturated fats (with Omega-3) are found in oils fish, eg, salmon and mackerel, and in flaxseed, walnuts, walnut oil, soybean an soybean oil. They can reduce triglycerides bay have a variable impact on LDL cholesterol.
- Sterols are found in margarines they've been added to. They help to lower the absorption of cholesterol from your intestine into your bloodstream and decrease levels of LDL cholesterol.
Read more about lipids and what cholesterol tests mean.
How can I work out if I am at risk of heart disease?
A heart risk assessment will help you find out your risk of heart disease by building a picture of your risk based on factors such as your age, sex, ethnicity, cholesterol levels, smoking history, blood pressure, family history and other health conditions.
Different people need a heart risk assessment at different ages. Find out more about heart risk assessment.
My Heart Check
As well as seeing your GP for a heart risk assessment, you can check your heart health with My Heart Check. It's a free online heart health check designed for Kiwis by the Heart Foundation.
It can estimate your heart age compared to your actual age, as well as giving you an estimate of your risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the next 5 years. Note that this free online tool works best for people aged 30–75. You can still use it if you are older or younger, but your result may be less accurate.
Use My Heart Check to find out about your heart health.
What your lipid test means for you BPAC, NZ
Information and lifestyle tips to cut cholesterol Better Health Channel, Australia
Cholesterol management Heart Foundation, NZ
Cholesterol – explained American Heart Association, US
|Andy McLachlan is a cardiology nurse practitioner with clinical experience in long-term condition support and management, acute cardiology and adult cardiac intensive care nursing. He leads a team of nurses at Middlemore Hospital managing a range of cardiac nursing interventions and runs clinics to help support people back to health following cardiac events, interventions or surgery.|