5 secret signs of high cholesterol

Julie Cook 30 July 2021

There are more cholesterol risk factors than you might think...

We’re told again and again we need to keep our cholesterol low. But as a nation we’re not doing very well. According to Public Health England, 60 per cent of people have high cholesterol.

High cholesterol simply means you have too much of a substance called LDL. This is a waxy substance in your blood and doctors call this “bad” cholesterol because it can clog arteries, raise blood pressure and increase your risk of a heart attack.

So what secret signs can you look out for?

  1. Your parents had it

Did you know that high cholesterol can be genetic? FH—familial hypercholesterolemia—can be passed down and result in high cholesterol levels. Your parents might be slim and fit and so might you—but it is possible.

According to the FH Foundation, a charity that supports people with familial hypercholesterolemia, one in every 200-500 people has the condition, meaning thousands of people could be suffering from high cholesterol without knowing it.

FH is therefore a common—and yet life-threatening—condition and untreated it can increase cholesterol leading to early heart attacks and heart disease. Just like high cholesterol itself, FH can be symptomless. If your family has a pattern of heart attacks under 55, see a GP and ask for testing.

"One in every 200-500 people has the condition, meaning thousands of people could be suffering from high cholesterol without knowing it"

Illustration of heart and doctors monitoring it

  1. You have waxy lumps on the skin

In extreme cases high cholesterol can lead to a skin condition called xanthomas. These are waxy deposit that are a result of fat leaching out of the skin. They feel soft and have a yellowy colour.

Dr Adil Sheraz (ALL CORR), Consultant Dermatologist & British Skin Foundation spokesperson says: “Xanthomas are cholesterol-rich deposits that can occur at any site of the body. They are benign, however, can sometimes indicate other disease processes such as high cholesterol, an underactive thyroid or diabetes. Patients who suffer with hyperlipidaemia (raised levels of lipids in the blood) may get deposits of these lipoproteins in the tendons, under the skin or commonly on the eyelids, where they are known as xanthelasma palpebrarum (XP).  

The prevalence is approximately 1.1 per cent in women and 0.3 per cent in men. One study demonstrated that around a quarter of the patients had a family history of hypercholesterolaemia (significantly raised levels of cholesterol in the blood). Not all patients who present with XP will have raised cholesterol levels, however, they should all have blood tests for cholesterol, triglycerides and HDL-cholesterol.”

  1. You’re getting older

Ageing—even if you’re still fit and slim—can increase your chances of getting high cholesterol. Cholesterol levels tend to climb as we get older and men are more at risk than women. However, a woman’s risk goes up as she goes through menopause. According to a paper in the US Cardiology review, menopause is linked to an increase in LDL and total cholesterol levels peak at 55-65 years.

For men, being older than just 45 is a risk factor for higher cholesterol levels.

So why does age play a part? Because as we age our bodies’ LDL receptors (which remove LDL cholesterol from the blood) become less active meaning that cholesterol can shoot up.

"For men, being older than just 45 is a risk factor for higher cholesterol levels"

An illustration of four older people

  1. Men—you’re unable to get and maintain an erection

Although high cholesterol is not a direct cause of erectile dysfunction, experts have found a link between atherosclerosis—a narrowing of the arteries caused by a build-up of plaque—and an inability to get or maintain an erection. Atherosclerosis can be caused by high cholesterol, hence the link.

Although all men can suffer from individual bouts of erectile dysfunction due to stress or anxiety, more regular erectile dysfunction usually has a health-related cause and is often due to blood flow.

LDL cholesterol sticks to the inside of arteries, leading to a build up of fatty deposits that makes it hard for blood to flow and this can lead to erectile dysfunction.

If you have erectile dysfunction, see your GP. Blood tests will likely be ordered to test your cholesterol levels.

A picture of a cut open lemon and a banana

  1. You have high blood pressure—even if you are slender

According to the British Heart Foundation those with high blood pressure are also more likely to have high cholesterol. Regina Giblin, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the BHF says: “Those with high blood pressure can also be living with high blood cholesterol. Lifestyle factors, such as eating too foods high in saturated fat, smoking, drinking too much alcohol and not exercising enough can all result in somebody having both high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are risk factors for heart attack or stroke.”

She adds that following a healthy lifestyle will help to reduce your blood pressure and cholesterol, and help you live a healthier life.A Mediterranean-based diet, which includes plenty of fruit and vegetables, fish, beans and pulses and unsaturated fats like olive oil, is not only delicious, but is also good for your cholesterol, subsequently reducing your risk of heart attack or stroke.”

"According to the British Heart Foundation those with high blood pressure are also more likely to have high cholesterol"

High blood pressure monitor

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