If you’ve been diagnosed with high cholesterol, you’re probably facing some changes. You know from your test results that your numbers are high, and you’ve heard what your doctor has to say on the matter. You may have new medications to take and lifestyle adjustments to make.
You go home and start on your treatment, but within a few weeks, your mind starts playing tricks on you.
“I feel fine,” you may think. “Do I really need to be taking these medications?”
High blood cholesterol usually doesn’t create any symptoms. You probably don’t really “feel” any different. That may tempt you to go back to the way things were.
If you fail to follow through on your treatment plan, though, you could be putting yourself at risk for life-threatening cardiac events and other dangerous health conditions. Here’s why it’s important to do everything you can to follow your doctor’s instructions, even if it doesn’t feel necessary.
How is high cholesterol treated?
Doctors recommend treating high cholesterol to reduce your risk of heart disease and other conditions like kidney disease and diabetes.
If your levels are only a little high and you don’t have any other risk factors for heart disease, lifestyle changes may be enough to lower your cholesterol numbers. These include eating a healthy diet, exercising more often, and losing some weight. Making these changes can have a very positive effect on cholesterol levels and overall heart disease risk.
If your numbers are quite high, though, lifestyle changes may not be enough. Your doctor will probably recommend cholesterol-lowering medications, like statins, combined with lifestyle changes to help maintain your overall health.
Treatment helps you avoid heart disease and other problems
Consistent high levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol, are linked with an increased risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke. It can also lead to other problems like high blood sugar and diabetes, kidney problems, gallstones, and peripheral arterial disease (PAD).
Getting those numbers down, on the other hand, can reduce your risk of having to deal with any of these.
Heart attacks and strokes
A large study review published in Lancet reported that each 1 millimole per liter (mmol/L) reduction in LDL cholesterol resulted in a reduction in heart attacks, strokes, and similar events by about 11 per 1,000 over a period of five years. The benefits “greatly exceeded” any risk of side effects from cholesterol-lowering drugs.
In a similar study, researchers found that lowering LDL cholesterol by 2 to 3 mmol/L safely reduced the risk of heart attack and stroke by 40 to 50 percent.
High cholesterol affects all blood vessels in your body and can lead to chronic kidney disease. If you have both high cholesterol and kidney disease, you’re even more at risk for heart disease. In a Lancet study of people with both of these conditions, statin therapy lowered LDL cholesterol levels and reduced the incidence of heart attacks and strokes.
Diabetes-associated heart attack
Having both diabetes and high cholesterol gives you a higher risk of heart disease. Complying with treatment is important, as it can save you from suffering a heart attack. In a 2009 Lancet study, researchers found that people with both of these conditions who lowered their LDL cholesterol with medications were less likely to die of heart attacks or strokes.
Most gallstones are made up of excess cholesterol. Some studies have found that cholesterol-lowering medications may help prevent gallstones from forming or even dissolve those that already exist.
High cholesterol levels can narrow the arteries leading to your legs and feet, causing PAD. In turn, PAD can increase risk of heart disease and amputations. Studies have indicated that lowering cholesterol in people with PAD can help reduce their risk of suffering heart attacks and strokes. It may also help lower the risk of amputations.
In a study review published in Diabetologia, researchers found that cholesterol-lowering drugs reduced risk of amputation by 22 to 33 percent.
Recent studies raise questions
In addition to prescribing medications, your doctor may have told you to change your diet to help lower your cholesterol. You may wonder: Is it really necessary?
It’s true that some recent research has raised questions. In 2012, researchers reported in Advances in Nutrition that the cholesterol we get from foods such as eggs may not have as big an impact on overall cholesterol levels as we thought. Results of studies like these have caused health organizations to relax their restrictions on dietary cholesterol.
Scientists and doctors alike, however, still recommend that you watch your diet carefully. We still have evidence that a diet high in saturated fat, for instance, may increase risk of heart attacks. Researchers reported in the British Medical Journal that intake of saturated fats was associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease.
Though some recent research may bring up questions, it’s important to look at the whole picture before ignoring the large body of evidence supporting current recommendations. There’s no doubt that eating a healthy diet and exercising more can help you live a healthier life. If your cholesterol levels are still high, adding in a cholesterol-lowering medication can help you avoid a lot of complications down the road.
Complying with treatment can be challenging
Perhaps you’re suffering some side effects from the medication. Side effects associated with statins, for instance, may include:
- muscle cramps
- trouble sleeping
These can be difficult to cope with.
Talk to your doctor. It could be that another type of medication will work better for you, or there may be other ways to make you feel more comfortable.
If you’re struggling trying to stick with your doctor’s advice for lifestyle changes, you can get more help. Ask to talk to a dietician to help you plan meals. Employ a personal trainer to help you get more physically fit. Or simply take more walks with a friend or family member.
The important thing is to realize that over 50 years of research have told us that high cholesterol levels are dangerous. Imaginea yourself 5, 10, or even 20 years down the road. You want to feel as healthy and energetic as you can. What you do today, including complying with your doctor’s recommendations, can help make this happen.