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Dyslipidemia: What You Need to Know

What is dyslipidemia?

Dyslipidemia refers to unhealthy levels of one or more kinds of lipid (fat) in your blood.

Your blood contains three main types of lipid:

  • high-density lipoprotein (HDL)
  • low-density lipoprotein (LDL)
  • triglycerides

If you have dyslipidemia, it usually means your LDL levels or your triglycerides are too high. It can also mean your HDL levels are too low.

LDL cholesterol is considered the “bad” type of cholesterol. That’s because it can build up and form clumps or plaques in the walls of your arteries. Too much plaque in the arteries of your heart can cause a heart attack.

HDL is the “good” cholesterol because it helps remove LDL from your blood.

Triglycerides come from the calories you eat but don’t burn right away. Triglycerides are stored in fat cells. They’re released as energy when you need them. If you eat more calories than you burn, though, you can get a buildup of triglycerides.

High LDL and triglyceride levels put you at a higher risk for heart attack and stroke. Low levels of HDL cholesterol are linked to higher heart disease risks. Learn about the recommended cholesterol levels by age.

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Types

Types of dyslipidemias

Dyslipidemia is divided up into primary and secondary types. Primary dyslipidemia is inherited. Secondary dyslipidemia is an acquired condition. That means it develops from other causes, such as obesity or diabetes.

You may hear the term hyperlipidemia used interchangeably with dyslipidemia. But that’s not entirely accurate. Hyperlipidemia refers to high levels of LDL or triglycerides. Dyslipidemia can refer to levels that are either higher or lower than the normal range for those blood fats.

Among the specific types of primary dyslipidemia are:

  • Familial combined hyperlipidemia. This is the most common inherited cause of both high LDL cholesterol and high triglycerides. If you have familial combined hyperlipidemia, you could develop these problems in your teens or 20s. You’re also at a higher risk for early coronary artery disease, which can lead to a heart attack. Learn more about this condition.
  • Familial hypercholesterolemia and polygenic hypercholesterolemia. These are both characterized by high total cholesterol. You can calculate your total cholesterol by adding your LDL and HDL levels, along with half of your triglyceride level. A total cholesterol level of under 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) is best.
  • Familial hyperapobetalipoproteinemia. This condition means you have high levels of apolipoprotein B, a protein that is part of your LDL cholesterol.

Hyperlipoproteinemia is a condition that can be primary or secondary. If you have this condition, your body has difficulty breaking down LDL cholesterol or triglycerides.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms?

You could have dyslipidemia and never know it. Like high blood pressure, high cholesterol doesn’t have obvious symptoms. It’s often discovered during a routine blood test.

However, dyslipidemia can lead to cardiovascular disease, which can be symptomatic. High LDL cholesterol levels are associated with coronary artery disease (CAD), which is blockage in the arteries of your heart, and peripheral artery disease (PAD), which is blockage in the arteries of your legs. CAD can lead to chest pain and eventually a heart attack. The main symptom of PAD is leg pain when walking.

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Causes and risk factors

What are the causes and who’s at risk?

Several behaviors can lead to dyslipidemia. They include:

  • cigarette smoking
  • obesity and a sedentary lifestyle
  • consumption of foods high in saturated fat and trans fat

Excessive alcohol consumption may also contribute to higher triglyceride levels.

You’re at a higher risk of primary dyslipidemia if one or both of your parents had dyslipidemia.

Advancing age is also a risk factor for high cholesterol. Women tend to have lower LDL levels than men until menopause. That’s when women’s LDL levels start to rise.

Other medical conditions that can raise your dyslipidemia risk include:

Also, a low HDL cholesterol level is associated with a high LDL level, though the two numbers don’t always move in tandem.

Diagnosis

How is it diagnosed?

A simple blood test that checks for LDL, HDL, and triglycerides will reveal whether your levels are high, low, or in a healthy range. These numbers can change from year to year, so getting annual blood work is a good idea. If you take medications for dyslipidemia your doctor may want you to have more frequent blood tests. Here’s how to prepare for a cholesterol test.

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Treatment

Treatment options

The most commonly used medication to treat dyslipidemia is a statin. Statins help reduce LDL levels by interfering with cholesterol production in the liver. Here’s more about how statins work.

There are several types of statin. They all work a little differently, with some being stronger than others.

Your doctor may also prescribe other cholesterol medications. They may be taken in addition to a statin or in place of a statin. There are many pros and cons to consider when choosing between cholesterol-controlling drugs.

These non-statin drugs include:

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Lifestyle changes

What lifestyle changes can help?

Lifestyle changes may be able to help you get your cholesterol and triglyceride levels under control. The first step is to change your diet. Changes should include consuming less saturated fat, refined sugar, and alcohol. Adding more fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains to your diet may help. Check out these 13 cholesterol-lowering foods to add to your diet.

Daily exercise and weight loss may also help you improve your cholesterol profile.

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Prevention

Prevention tips

Try to maintain a healthy weight by following a heart-healthy diet and exercising regularly. You should also quit smoking if you smoke.

If you’re concerned about dyslipidemia, discuss with your doctor how you can guard against it.

If you have a family history of high cholesterol, be proactive about leading a healthy life before your cholesterol numbers start to move toward unhealthy levels.

Outlook

What’s the outlook?

With the help of statins or fibrates and a healthy lifestyle, you can usually manage dyslipidemia. The key is to keep taking medications if they’re effective at managing your numbers and you aren’t experiencing any side effects. Sometimes people reach their cholesterol targets and stop taking their statins.

If you follow your doctor’s advice, you should be able to get dyslipidemia under control and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.

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