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What Hyperlipidemia Means for Your Health: High levels of lipids (fats) in your blood raise your risk of cardiovascular disease and events, such as heart attack and stroke.

"Hyperlipidemia" is one of those medical terms that leave most of us scratching our heads in confusion. But even if it is a mouthful, it's important to understand what the term means, since it is linked with the leading causes of death in the U.S. population. First, a translation from doctor-speak to layperson language: "Hyper" means high, and "lipid" means fat.

"Hyperlipidemia refers to an elevation in cholesterol and/or triglycerides in the bloodstream," explains Jessica Pena, MD, director of HeartHealth, the cardiovascular prevention program of the Dalio Institute of Cardiovascular Imaging at NewYork-Presbyterian/ Weill Cornell. "Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that your body needs for several important functions, and triglycerides are fats in your body that provide energy."

The types of elevated cholesterol that are of most concern are LDL cholesterol and non-HDL cholesterol; it's these types that are associated with chronic diseases. Non HDL cholesterol is calculated by subtracting HDL cholesterol from total cholesterol and is a good measure of all of the "bad" types of cholesterol in the blood.

Health Effects

If you have a high level of LDL cholesterol in your blood, the cholesterol particles penetrate the walls of your arteries and form plaque, which builds up over time. "Atherosclerosis" is the term for narrowing and hardening of arteries caused by plaque buildup. If the plaque ruptures, it can block an artery and cause a heart attack or a stroke.

"Over time, elevated LDL and nonHDL cholesterol increases your risk of developing atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, which includes conditions such as coronary artery disease, stroke, and peripheral arterial disease. These are the leading causes of death in the U.S. among both women and men," says Dr. Pena.

In addition, severely elevated levels of triglycerides can cause pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas. Symptoms of pancreatitis include pain in the upper abdomen and/or abdominal pain that radiates to your back. Sometimes, the pain becomes worse after you eat. Other signs of pancreatitis include fever, rapid pulse, nausea, and vomiting. Pancreatitis can cause serious complications, including kidney failure, breathing problems, infection, diabetes, and malnutrition, and it raises the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Causes and Risk Factors

Hyperlipidemia is sometimes caused by other medical conditions, such as thyroid and kidney diseases, and certain medications also can raise the lipid levels in your blood.

In addition to hyperlipidemia, Dr. Pena notes that several conditions and factors can increase your risk of developing atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. These include:

> A family history of premature heart disease (under age 55 in a male first-degree relative and under age 65 in a female first-degree relative)

> A history of inflammatory disorders, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis

> A history of preeclampsia or gestational diabetes

> Early menopause that occurs at younger than 40 years of age.

Dr. Pena explains that all of these factors are taken into account when your doctor is determining your risk of cardiovascular disease. Depending on your level of risk, you and you doctor will discuss treatment options and lifestyle strategies that can decrease your risk.

A risk calculator advocated by current guidelines is available at

Lowering Your Lipids

A healthy lifestyle is the cornerstone of treating hyperlipidemia, as well as preventing it. This includes maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active, and eating a heart-healthy diet with a focus on vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, and healthy protein that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol.

"However, for some people, particularly those at high risk of developing heart disease and stroke or those who have already had a cardiovascular event, lifestyle is not enough, and medications are recommended to lower their risk," says Dr. Pena.

Statins are the most commonly used medications for hyperlipidemia.

"Statins work by reducing the amount of cholesterol produced by the liver. Statins can lower cholesterol levels by up to 50 percent. In general, statins reduce the risk of cardiovascular events by about 25 percent," says Dr. Pena.

Genetics, diet, and lifestyle play important roles in the development of hyperlipidemia. Atherosclerosis is a process that starts relatively early in life, so maintaining a healthy lifestyle throughout your life is the best prevention strategy.

"A critical point to emphasize is that genetics is not destiny," emphasizes Dr. Pena. "Even among people at high genetic risk, a favorable lifestyle (not smoking, being physically active, avoiding obesity, and following a healthy dietary pattern) reduces risk of heart disease."


> Cholesterol is in every cell in your body; it helps stabilize and support the cell membranes.

> Cholesterol aids in the production of several types of hormones. It also plays a role in the formation of bile acids, which are needed for the breakdown and absorption of fats in the digestive system.

> When you eat, your body converts any calories that aren't needed immediately into triglycerides, which are stored in your fat cells. If your body needs more energy than it can get from other sources, it gets energy from triglycerides that are released.

Caption: Your doctor will consider hyperlipidemia and many other factors when determining your risk of cardiovascular disease. If your risk is high, you and your doctor will create a treatment plan that will decrease your risk.

Caption: High levels of LDL and non-HDL cholesterol are linked with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

             LDL cholesterol   Triglycerides
                (mg/dL)           (mg/dL)

Optimal         <100*
Normal         100-129             <150
Borderline     130-159             150-199
High           160-189             200-499
Very high    190 or higher      500 or higher

mg/dL = milligrams per deciliter

* <70 mg/dL for people diagnosed with coronary artery disease
or heart disease
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Title Annotation:PREVENTION
Publication:Women's Health Advisor
Date:Aug 1, 2019
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