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High Cholesterol Comorbidities: What You Need to Know

Medically reviewed by Deborah Weatherspoon, PhD, MSN, RN, CRNA on April 17, 2017Written by Colleen Story on April 17, 2017
high cholesterol

No matter your age or overall health condition, it’s important to be aware of your cholesterol levels. High cholesterol is dangerous, and it can become more dangerous when combined with other health issues. In fact, certain health conditions can cause your numbers to go up. At the same time, high cholesterol increases your risk of certain other diseases.

The problem is that high cholesterol rarely works on its own. Here’s what you need to know about high cholesterol comorbidities, and how to protect yourself.

What is a comorbidity?

Comorbidity is when a person has two or more medical disorders at the same time. You may have both high cholesterol and high blood pressure, for example. Studies show that comorbidity is linked with worse health outcomes, and that in today’s world, it’s more common for a person to have multiple diseases instead of just one.

In fact, researchers reported in The American Journal of Medicine that comorbidities are on the rise. Over a period of 20 years, the proportion of patients with heart failure who had five or more comorbid chronic conditions rose from 42.1 percent to 58.0 percent.

Comorbidities can complicate medical care. As long as doctors are aware of all of the conditions, though, they can address them all. That’s why it’s important to understand how one condition like high blood cholesterol can lead to other conditions like those listed here.

6 health issues that can lead to high cholesterol

A number of illnesses can put you at a higher risk for developing high cholesterol. Here are six of the most common.

1. Diabetes

The American Heart Association (AHA) states that diabetes often raises levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as “bad” cholesterol. In the National Diabetes Statistics Report of 2014, about 65 percent of adults with diabetes had high LDL cholesterol levels or used cholesterol-lowering medications.

Scientists don’t have all the answers yet as to why diabetes may increase risk of high cholesterol. They do think that there is some connection between insulin, the hormone that manages blood sugar, and cholesterol.

In a study published in Diabetes Care, researchers reported that diabetes seemed to either increase the production of cholesterol or reduce its absorption.

2. Obesity

Excess weight also creates a greater risk for high cholesterol. Several studies have reported a connection. In the International Journal of Obesity, researchers found a link between body mass index and cholesterol. Those participants who were obese and between the ages of 25 and 39 were most at risk.

The AHA also states that being obese can lower levels of high-density lipoprotein, aka “good” cholesterol. That can increase risk of heart disease. Researchers echoed this finding in the journal Obesity, stating that obesity reduces HDL cholesterol. They added that weight loss through exercise is an effective treatment.

3. Familial hypercholesterolemia (FH)

FH is an inherited condition that leads to high cholesterol levels. It’s caused by an abnormal gene that is passed on from parent to child. The genetic mutation makes it impossible for the liver to remove excess LDL cholesterol from your body. The condition increases risk of heart problems and can lead to a shortened lifespan.

4. Hypothyroidism

When a person has hypothyroidism, the thyroid doesn’t produce enough thyroxine. This is a hormone used to help your body produce energy. Symptoms of the disorder include fatigue, weight gain, and muscle aches.

Thyroid hormones also control your body’s metabolism. When they aren’t working like they’re supposed to, they can affect cholesterol levels, according to the American Thyroid Association. When thyroid hormones are low, cholesterol levels often go up.

In a 2011 study published in the Open Cardiovascular Medical Journal, researchers reported that thyroid dysfunction had a great impact on fats like cholesterol in the blood.

5. Kidney diseases

Chronic kidney disease often occurs with high cholesterol. Researchers delved into the connection in a 2011 study. Results showed that even in the early stages of chronic kidney disease, there were signs of disturbances in cholesterol levels. Though the kidneys aren’t responsible for clearing cholesterol out of the body, cholesterol still tends to build up as kidneys fail.

These researchers added that high cholesterol can make kidney disease worse. Because having both conditions is so dangerous, they recommended that people with even mild to moderate kidney disease take cholesterol-lowering medications.

6. Cushing’s syndrome

Cushing’s syndrome is a condition in which the body suffers from high levels of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is also known as the “stress” hormone and is made by your adrenal glands. It becomes active when you need to fight or flee. It’s also necessary for other bodily functions, like controlling blood sugar levels and reducing inflammation.

People with Cushing’s syndrome have too much cortisol. This may be because of the following reasons:

  • The body produces too much.
  • A tumor develops on the adrenal glands.
  • It’s a side effect of using oral corticosteroid medications.

All that extra cortisol can lead to an increase in cholesterol too. A study published in Neuroendocrinology reported that Cushing’s disease can raise total cholesterol levels and affect how LDL cholesterol is processed.

Having high cholesterol increases your risk for other health issues

The preceding medical conditions can increase your risk of developing high cholesterol. On the other hand, high cholesterol can increase your risk of developing the following medical conditions.

1. Heart disease

This is the most common disease related to high cholesterol, and the most dangerous one. Heart disease remains the No. 1 cause of death in Americans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that people with high total cholesterol have about twice the risk of getting heart disease as those with healthy levels.

The problem is that excess cholesterol in your blood can stick to the walls of your arteries and other blood vessels. Over time, it hardens to form a dangerous and damaging plaque. The arteries grow stiff and narrowed, which makes it harder for your heart to pump blood through them. All of these factors work together to increase risk of heart attack and stroke.

2. Gallstones

Having a high level of cholesterol in your body increases your risk of gallstones. These are hardened particles that form in your gallbladder. If they become large enough to block your bile duct (the tube carrying bile from your gallbladder to your small intestine), they can cause a gallbladder attack.

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases states that in the U.S., more than 80 percent of gallstones are made up of excess cholesterol.

3. High blood pressure

As mentioned previously, high cholesterol can gradually cause artery narrowing and stiffness. Then your heart has to work harder to pump blood through them. That can cause your blood pressure to go up.

A study published in the Journal of Human Hypertension showed that people with higher cholesterol levels had significantly higher blood pressure levels when they exercised than those with lower cholesterol levels.

In a 2005 study published in Hypertension, researchers found that over a period of 14 years, men with the highest levels of total cholesterol had a 23 percent increased risk of developing high blood pressure than those who started out with lower cholesterol levels.

4. Peripheral arterial disease (PAD)

PAD a condition in which the blood vessels in your body become narrowed and filled with plaque deposits. It’s similar to heart disease, but affects mainly the blood vessels leading to your legs and feet. It can also affect those in your kidneys.

PAD may block blood flow to your legs, causing pain and a feeling of heaviness, and making it more difficult to walk. It can also increase risk of blood clots in your legs. High cholesterol significantly increases risk of PAD.

5. Dementia

As high cholesterol leaves deposits in the blood vessels, it causes those vessels to narrow and stiffen. Some of the blood vessels affected may be those that lead to your brain.

You may have heard that anything you can do to protect your heart health will also help protect your brain health. Researchers confirmed that in a 2014 study published in JAMA Neurology. They found that having a high HDL cholesterol level and a low LDL cholesterol level was as good for the brain as it was for the heart.

Blood tests and brain scans showed that those people with heart-healthy cholesterol levels had fewer amyloid plaques in their brain. Amyloid plaques are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

6. Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)

NAFLD is a disease caused by the buildup of fat in your liver. It’s most often linked to being overweight or obese, but a high cholesterol level can also increase risk.

As the fat cells build up inside your liver, it may become inflamed. Symptoms include abdominal pain, weakness, and confusion. Over time, if the condition isn’t corrected, it can affect liver function.

In a 2014 study published in PLoS One, researchers reported that high cholesterol is a main cause of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and added that patients with NAFLD have an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.

Be vigilant with your overall health

These and other comorbidities make it even more important for you to treat your high cholesterol. Follow your doctor’s instructions and make healthy lifestyle changes to help bring your numbers down.

Meanwhile, continue to keep an eye on your overall health in case another condition develops, so you can treat it as early as possible.

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