Heart disease has now surpassed cancer as the number one cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. High cholesterol is one of the main risk factors for developing heart disease, besides high blood pressure or your genes. Unfortunately, there are no symptoms for high cholesterol in most cases. So, despite feeling healthy, you could still have dangerously high cholesterol levels and not even know it.
How Can I Tell If I Have High Cholesterol?
The only way to find out if you have high cholesterol is through a cholesterol test. A cholesterol test is a blood test that will look at the key lipids, or fats, that are in the blood, such as:
If your cholesterol levels are high, your healthcare provider may recommend following a cholesterol-lowering diet, getting more active, taking medication, or a combination of these. Current guidelines recommend that everyone over the age of 20 should get their cholesterol checked at least once every five years. However, if you have a family history of high cholesterol, or you have been diagnosed with a chronic condition, such as diabetes or heart disease, you may need to get your cholesterol more frequently. In some cases, high cholesterol is found by accident during a routine checkup –- and many people are surprised to be diagnosed with high cholesterol when they are otherwise feeling OK.
Other Ways To Tell If You're At Risk For High Cholesterol
Knowing your risk of having high cholesterol is also important. Some risk factors for having high cholesterol are things that we can change, such as modifying our diet and getting more exercise. However, there are other factors we cannot change, such as our gender, are age, or genes. If you have any of the conditions listed below, you are at risk of having high cholesterol and should get checked if you have not already done so:
- Inactivity (lack of exercise)
- Poor diet
- Certain medications
- Age (the older you are, the more you are at risk)
- Family history of high cholesterol
- Certain diseases (diabetes, certain thyroid gland conditions)
What Happens If I Don't Get My Cholesterol Checked?
Some people are tempted to ignore their high cholesterol, especially because they feel fine depsite the high cholesterol levels. However, this is not a wise decision, since persistently high lipid levels could lead to dangerous complications. If you decide to ignore your cholesterol levels by either not getting your cholesterol checked or ignoring your high cholesterol, you could develop heart disease.
When cholesterol levels are high, it can deposit on inflamed vessels and form a waxy plaque. This process, which is referred to as atherosclerosis, can build up in vessels and cause vessels to become partially blocked. As a result, a heart attack or stroke can occur due to the vessel becoming completely obstructed or the plaque breaking off and moving to another area of the body.
In some cases, people may not find out that they have high cholesterol levels until they have had their first heart attack or stroke. To prevent this, have your cholesterol levels checked -- and if they are high, be sure to follow the treatment your healthcare provider suggests.
Third Report of the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults (PDF), July 2004, The National Institutes of Heath: The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
CDC. Deaths: Leading Causes for 2002. National Vital Statistics Reports 2005;53(17).