Health conditions

High cholesterol

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty substance produced naturally by your body and found in your blood. You can also get cholesterol from some foods. It is used for many different things in the body, but causes health problems when there is too much of it in the blood.

Too much cholesterol in the blood causes fatty deposits to gradually build up in blood vessels. This makes it harder for blood to flow through, which can cause a heart attack or stroke.

How common is high cholesterol?

A Heart Foundation survey completed in 2010 found 1 in 3 Australians aged 30 to 65 had been told by a doctor that they have high cholesterol. This equates to 3.5 million Australians. 

Signs and symptoms

There are often no symptoms or signs of high cholesterol – you can have high cholesterol and feel well. Therefore, it is important that you have regular cholesterol checks.

A blood test is used to measure your cholesterol.

The following factors increase the risks of serious problems associated with high cholesterol:

  • smoking
  • having high blood pressure
  • being overweight
  • having diabetes.

Diagnosis of high cholesterol

The only way to find out if your cholesterol is high is by having it checked regularly by a health professional.

There are several types of cholesterol found in your body.

Low density lipoprotein (LDL) is also known as bad cholesterol because it can add to the build up of plaque in your arteries and increase your risk of coronary heart disease (CHD).

High density lipoprotein (HDL) is also known as good cholesterol because it helps to protect you against CHD.

It is best to aim for low LDL cholesterol and higher HDL cholesterol.

Triglycerides are another type of fat in the blood. There is evidence to suggest that some people with higher levels of blood triglycerides are at increased risk of CHD.

If you have coronary heart disease, we generally recommend:

  • LDL < 1.8 mmol/L
  • HDL > 1.0 mmol/L
  • Triglycerides < 2.0 mmol/L.

It is important that you talk with your doctor about what your cholesterol and triglycerides should be.

Treatment of high cholesterol

Talk to your doctor to find out what the most appropriate treatment for you is.

Making lifestyle changes, in particular changing some of the foods you eat, is very important to help to reduce your cholesterol and improve your heart health.

You may also need to take cholesterol-lowering medicines to help you manage your cholesterol and reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

Enjoying healthy eating is just one important part of lowering your total blood cholesterol level and reducing your risk of further heart problems. Other important things that you need to do are:

  • take your medicines as prescribed
  • be smoke-free
  • be physically active
  • manage your blood pressure
  • achieve and maintain a healthy body weight
  • maintain your social and emotional health.

Managing high cholesterol

There are several ways that you can help to keep your cholesterol under control and reduce your risk of coronary heart disease.

  • Have your cholesterol checked regularly, as part of an assessment of your overall risk of heart, stroke and blood vessel disease. The higher your risk, the more often that you should have these checks.
  • Saturated fat is the type of fat that clogs our arteries and raises our blood cholesterol levels. A diet high in saturated fat is the main cause of high cholesterol. Simple ways to reduce the amount we eat include switching from butter to margarine, choosing reduced fat dairy, and trimming visible fat from meat.
  • Enjoy healthy eating. Choose mainly plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits and legumes (dried peas, dried beans and lentils), and grain-based foods (preferably wholegrain), such as bread, pasta, noodles and rice.
  • Consume moderate amounts of lean meats, poultry, fish and reduced fat dairy products, and moderate amounts of polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat.
  • Shoppers concerned about the amount of saturated fat in foods can look for products with the Heart Foundation Tick as a healthier choice.

Visit the Heart Foundation Tick (external site) for more information on healthy eating.

Other actions include:

  • Be smoke-free
  • Limit your alcohol intake
  • Achieve and maintain a healthy body weight
  • Be active every day. Do 30 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, if not all, days of the week.

If you have high cholesterol, you can help to lower it by changing some of the foods that you eat.

Where to get help

  • Always dial triple zero (000) to call an ambulance in a medical emergency
  • See your doctor
  • Visit a GP after hours
  • Ring healthdirect on 1800 022 222
  • Phone the Heart Foundation’s Health Information Service on 1300 362 787

Remember

  • Too much cholesterol in the blood causes fatty deposits to gradually build up in blood vessels.
  • The only way to find out if your cholesterol is high is by having it checked regularly by a health professional.
  • Enjoying healthy eating is just one important part of lowering your total blood cholesterol level and reducing your risk of further heart problems.

This information provided by

Heart Foundation logo


Acknowledgements
Heart Foundation

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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