High Cholesterol Overview: Signs, Symptoms, Prevention, and Treatment

Jory Cross by Jory Cross | Licensed since 2012
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This article was updated on: 10/21/2018

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Cholesterol is a wax-like substance found in fats, that your body needs, says the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website. However, if you have high cholesterol (also called hyperlipidemia), you may be at risk for serious health complications such as heart disease or stroke. Here’s what you need to know about this condition that affects   almost a third of Americans, according to a 2015 Centers for Disease Control report.

What is high cholesterol?

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends that adults have their cholesterol tested once every five years. This blood test is called a lipoprotein or lipid profile and it measures:

  • Your total blood cholesterol
  • Your LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, which causes plaque buildup and potential blockage of the arteries
  • Your HDL, or “good” cholesterol, which actually helps prevent fatty buildup in the arteries.
  • Your triglycerides, which is another type of fat found in the blood

The NIH defines high cholesterol as a total cholesterol of 240 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) or higher (borderline high is 200-239), or an LDL of 160 mg/DL or above (borderline high is 130-159). It is desirable to have high HDL numbers; the NIH states that an HDL of 40 mg/dL or below is a major risk factor for heart disease.

What are symptoms of high cholesterol?

High cholesterol itself doesn’t show any symptoms, the NIH reports, which is why it is very important to follow your doctor’s recommendations for cholesterol screening tests.

According to the Mayo Clinic, risk factors for developing high cholesterol include:

  • A diet high in saturated fats (animal fats), trans fats (found in commercially prepared snacks), and full-fat dairy products
  • A Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or above (severe obesity)
  • A large waist circumference (in women, this is sometimes referred to as an “apple” shape)
  • Physical inactivity, lack of regular exercise
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes

Are there health complications with high cholesterol?

When you have high cholesterol, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the excess fats in your blood can build up on the walls of arteries, narrowing the blood vessels and slowing the healthy flow of blood and oxygen to the heart. In extreme cases, the blood vessels can become completely blocked, resulting in a heart attack or stroke. The NIH reports that your risk of developing the following health complications increases significantly if you have untreated high cholesterol:

  • Angina, or chest pain, caused by inadequate blood and oxygen in the arteries supplying the heart.
  • Heart attack, caused by an arterial blockage either from fatty build-up or a fatty “clot” breaking loose and blocking a blood vessel.
  • Stroke, caused by a blood clot blocking blood flow to the brain.

How is high cholesterol treated?

In many cases, the NIH website says, your doctor may recommend prescription drug therapy; the medications may vary depending on your overall cholesterol numbers and your risk for developing complications.

In addition, your doctor might suggest a number of lifestyle changes to help you manage your high cholesterol. According to the National Institutes of Health, these might include:

  • Diet changes to limit the amount of fats and dietary cholesterol you consume
  • A heart-healthy exercise program of 30 minutes of moderate activity daily. If you start an exercise program on your own, be sure to get your doctor’s OK first.
  • Smoking cessation therapy if you currently smoke.
  • A weight loss program to help you achieve and/or maintain a healthy BMI (Body Mass Index)

Note: consult your doctor before making dietary, exercise, or medication changes.

Does Medicare cover high cholesterol?

If you have Original Medicare (Part A and Part B), you are generally covered for any medically necessary treatment for high cholesterol complications you receive in the hospital as an inpatient or as an outpatient at your doctor’s office or other qualifying outpatient facility; you may be responsible for copayments, coinsurance, and deductibles.

Part B also may cover high cholesterol screening tests ordered by your doctor once every five years. These tests may be at no cost to you if your provider accepts Medicare. Although the tests themselves may be covered, you still generally need to pay a co-pay for doctor visits under Medicare Part B.

If you are enrolled in a Medicare Prescription Drug Plan, your cholesterol medications may be covered under your plan’s formulary, or list of approved medications. It’s important to remember that plans may change their formularies from time to time, but you will be notified when necessary. Learn more about prescription drug coverage under Medicare Part D.

If you have questions about your Medicare benefits for treatment of high cholesterol, I’m available to help. You can request information via email or schedule a phone call at your convenience by clicking the appropriate link below. To see a list of plans in your area, click the “Compare Plans” button on this page.

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