High cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fatty substance that’s produced in the liver. It’s also in some foods that we eat. The body needs a certain amount of cholesterol to function normally.

Cholesterol combines with proteins to be carried around the blood. This combination is known as lipoproteins.

There are 2 main types of lipoprotein.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) carries cholesterol away from the cells and back to the liver to be removed. For this reason, HDL is referred to as ‘good cholesterol’ and higher levels of this type are better.

Non-HDL lipoproteins are known as ‘bad cholesterol’. This is because it can build up in blood vessel walls if there’s too much. This is known as atherosclerosis. This can lead to heart disease, strokes and peripheral arterial disease (PAD).

What are healthy cholesterol levels?

This information is just a guide to healthy cholesterol levels. What matters is your overall risk of cardiovascular disease. This is assessed by considering your cholesterol levels alongside other things like your age, whether you smoke and if you have a family history of cardiovascular disease.

Blood cholesterol is measured in units called millimoles per litre of blood. This is often shortened to mmol/L.

A healthy level of:

  • total cholesterol – is below 5mmol/L
  • HDL (good cholesterol) – is above 1.0mmol/L for men or above 1.2mmol/L for women
  • non-HDL (bad cholesterol) – is below 4mmol/L

You should speak to your healthcare professional if you’re worried about your cholesterol level.

Causes of high cholesterol

There are many things that can influence your chance of developing high cholesterol. Some of these you have control over and some of these you don’t.

For example, the chance of developing high cholesterol is increased by certain lifestyle factors. These are sometimes called controllable risk factors. This includes your diet, level of physical activity and smoking habits.

Things that influence high cholesterol that you can’t change include:

  • age
  • being male
  • ethnicity

There’s also an inherited condition called familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH). An inherited condition means that it can be passed through families by faulty genes. This can cause high cholesterol even in people who follow a healthy lifestyle.

Diagnosing high cholesterol

High cholesterol doesn’t usually cause any symptoms on it’s own. You can have your cholesterol levels checked.

Your healthcare professional may recommend that you get your cholesterol levels tested if they think you’re at risk of cardiovascular disease.

If you have high cholesterol, your healthcare professional will talk to you about how you can lower it. This might include things like changing your diet or taking medicine.

Managing your high cholesterol

Lifestyle changes can help to lower your cholesterol level, including:

  • eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • exercising regularly
  • stopping smoking
  • drinking less alcohol

The most common medications for high cholesterol are statins. But, there are some other types of medications available. Your healthcare professional will advise if you need these.

The British Heart Foundation has some top tips on how to lower your cholesterol.

Last updated:
02 July 2024