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February 2013 

Cholesterol – simple facts to a healthier lifestyle

Cholesterol. We’ve all heard of it, but what is it and do we really need to be concerned?

Cholesterol is a fat that is carried around our body in the blood. Surprisingly, despite its bad reputation, we couldn’t actually live without it. Existing in every cell in our body it helps us digest fats, make vital hormones and keeps our nerves healthy.

However, you can have too much of a good thing warns Princess Alexandra Hospital. High cholesterol can be a threat which increases our risk of heart and circulatory diseases. And with heart disease now killing three times more women than breast cancer, it’s time we started taking it very seriously.

Where does cholesterol come from?
Most is made in the liver, from the fat that we eat. However, it's also found in foods such as eggs, meat and dairy products and especially in saturated fats.

Your body produces all the cholesterol it needs. So eating a diet that is high in cholesterol increases the amount in your blood, and can lead to health problems.

Heart disease occurs when the coronary arteries become narrowed by a build-up of fatty deposits in their walls over a long period of time. Eventually the arteries may become so narrow that they restrict blood flow which can lead to a heart attack, stroke and kidney disease.

But small changes in diet and lifestyle are often all it takes to keep your cholesterol levels healthy, or to lower them if they’re too high.

Can cholesterol really be reduced?
Yes, for the majority of us, making a few simple changes to the way we live will reduce our risk.

Foods which contain high levels of saturated fat (see the nutritional values on all food packets) will increase the risk, as will smoking, being overweight, not exercising enough and drinking too much alcohol.

What are the symptoms?
High cholesterol doesn't usually produce any symptoms on its own, However, you may have symptoms from a medical condition caused by high levels of cholesterol and should watch out for leg or chest pain or yellow patches on the skin.

The only way to know your cholesterol level is to have it tested.

Who should have a cholesterol test?
The NHS Health Check programme offers a series of routine tests for people aged between 40 and 74. They help to identify your risk of developing heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and type 2 diabetes.

If you’re registered with a GP you will be invited to have the check at some point. Adults who have already been diagnosed with one of the four diseases won't be invited for the check as their condition will continue to be managed as usual.

What treatment is available?
Your GP may suggest using a combination of approaches. Depending on your results you may be recommended to adapt your diet and increase your physical activity levels. If you have a high risk of heart disease, your GP may also suggest drug treatment.

If you’re concerned about your health, don't wait until your NHS Health Check to do something about it. Go to your GP as you would normally.