Over 30% of Amercan adults over the age of 20 years have high blood cholesterol levels. This has become a common problem throughout the globe although numbers vary from country to country. Elevated cholesterol in the blood is one of the main causes of heart attacks and strokes – two serious conditions that have become among the leading causes of death throughout the world.
What happens with high blood cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that is needed in the human body. There are different types of cholesterol and some can be detrimental to health when present in the body in high quantities. Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) is one type. High blood cholesterol, also known as hypercholesterolemia, is where the “bad cholesterol” (LDL-C) levels in the bloodstream are elevated.
Read more on what is cholesterol.
There is a risk that this type of cholesterol may result in fatty plaques building up in the artery walls. This is known as atherosclerosis. The high the levels of LDL-C in the bloodstream, the greater the risk of atherosclerosis. The fatty plaques causes a narrowing in the affected arteries. As it narrows, the artery is able to carry less oxygen-rich blood to various organs and tissues in the body.
The more oxygen-sensitive and vital organs like the heart and brain can be severely affected by this reduced blood. The greater risk lies in a blood clot blocking the already narrowed artery which can then completely cut off the blood supply to the organ. This can lead to a heart attack or stroke (brain) but various other organs can be adversely affected by atherosclerosis.
How To Spot High Blood Cholesterol
High blood cholesterol presents with no signs and symptoms until it causes a significant narrowing of one or more arteries. The only conclusive way to detect high blood cholesterol is with an appropriate diagnostic investigation. These tests are conducted on blood samples and the level of both “good” and “bad” cholesterol can be verified.
However, artherosclerosis can cause one or more of the following symptoms when it affects the heart or brain. It is important to note that the signs and symptoms discussed below may occur as episodes which comes and go. Eventually the symptoms will become severe and often permanent once a heart attack or brain stroke arises. Death is a possible outcome in these situations.
Dizziness is a common symptom in both a heart attack and stroke. It can eventually lead to a loss of consciousness. This occurs as a result of the oxygen supply to the brain being insufficient to maintain normal brain activity. Even in a heart attack, the oxygen supply to the brain is compromised as the heart cannot pump properly to distribute oxygen-rich blood to the brain. It can vary from being slightly lightheaded to severely dizzy and unable to maintain normal balance and coordination.
Chest pain is a symptom mainly seen with a heart attack or angina pectoris. The reduced oxygen supply to the heart muscle (due to the narrowed coronary arteries) causes injury and damage to the heart muscle. Eventually this muscle tissue will die in a heart attack. The chest pain in a heart attack is typically described as being constrictive or suffocating in nature like the heart is being squeezed.
Pain is a consequence of these effects of reduced oxygen supply to the heart muscle. However, the pain is not limited to the central and left side of the chest where the heart is located. It may also extend to the jaw, neck, shoulder and arm especially on the left side of the body. There may also be pain in the upper middle abdominal region (epigastrium).
Numbness, Weakness or Paralysis
Abnormal sensations (paresthesia) like tingling or prickling and even numbness as well as muscle weakness or paralysis are more often seen with strokes. It tends to affect one side of the body and can extend from the head all the way down the limbs. Some degree of weakness may also occur with heart attacks as the oxygen supply to the muscles are inadequate as a result of weaker heart action.
Excessive sweating is a symptom seen more often with a heart attack. It arises suddenly and is profuse. The degree of sweating does not correlate with the environmental temperature. Excessive sweating should be considered with the other symptoms like chest pain, arm pain, shortness of breath and dizziness.
Visual disturbances are one of the common symptoms of a stroke. This is usually some degree of blurred vision but may also include double vision and even loss of vision. It is a sign of the visual centers of the brain being disrupted and damaged as a result of the loss of oxygen supply to the brain tissue. Similarly a heart attack can also sometimes cause sensory disturbances such as blurred vision.
Confusion and Anxiety
Confusion may arise in both a heart attack and stroke. A person may be uncertain of their own identity or location. It can also be accompanied by problems with identifying people, recognizing familiar objects and memory loss. Anxiety is another presenting symptom. During a heart attack man people experience a sense of doom and this may also occur with a stroke.
High Blood Cholesterol Levels
The most definitive means of confirming high blood cholesterol levels is with a blood test. A total blood cholesterol will indicate elevated cholesterol levels but will not always differentiate between elevated “good” (HDL-C) and “bad” (LDL-C) cholesterol. The total cholesterol level should not be 200 mg/dL or 5.2 mmol/L and higher.
Read more on cholesterol blood levels.
A lipid profile blood test will indicate the total cholesterol level as well as the levels of HDL-C and LDL-C. Other blood lipids such as triglycerides will also be indicated in this type of blood test. Ideally the LDL-C levels should be below 70 mg/dL or 1.8 mmol/dL while HDL-C should above 60 mg/dL or 1.5 mmol/L. Triglyceride levels should be below 150 mg/dL or 1.7 mmol/L.
It is important that the results of these blood tests are assessed by a doctor who can provide further insight into its meaning and the appropriate treatment.