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. 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. This picture shows what it looks like if you have low cholesterol, normal cholesterol and bad cholesterol levels.
Image: Heart Foundation, NZ
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.
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