Hyperlipidemia refers to high blood levels of two types of lipids: cholesterol and triglycerides. While high cholesterol is the most common type, hyperlipidemia also includes hypertriglyceridemia — in which triglyceride levels are too high — and mixed hyperlipidemia, in which both cholesterol and triglyceride levels are high.
Untreated hyperlipidemia is a risk factor for coronary artery disease, and those with the condition may face a greater risk for heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular issues. Fortunately, all forms of hyperlipidemia can be managed with lifestyle changes and/or medications.
Below, we explain more about the causes and risk factors for hyperlipidemia and how to manage the condition.
What is hyperlipidemia?
Hyperlipidemia occurs when a person’s levels of triglycerides, LDL cholesterol (aka “bad cholesterol”), or both are too high. Both triglycerides and cholesterol are types of lipids, or fatty acids, that move through your blood.
Neither cholesterol nor triglycerides are inherently bad. In fact, your body needs them, and each serves a distinct purpose:
- Triglycerides give your body energy
- Cholesterol builds cells and some hormones
In high amounts, however, LDL cholesterol and/or triglycerides cause plaque to gradually accumulate inside of your blood vessels. Over time, this makes it increasingly difficult for blood to move through your body. By depriving the heart and brain of nutrients and oxygen, this can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke.
Other complications of hyperlipidemia include:
- Coronary heart disease
- Carotid artery disease
- Sudden cardiac arrest
- Peripheral artery disease
Causes and risk factors
Hyperlipidemia can develop as the result of genetics, lifestyle factors, other health conditions, and medications.
- Imbalanced diet
- Lack of physical activity
- Heavy alcohol consumption
- Kidney disease
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
- Liver disease
- Birth control pills
- Antiretrovirals used for HIV treatment
If you have been prescribed any of the above medications, speak with your doctor about the balance of benefits and risks.
Hyperlipidemia is typically not accompanied by any visible symptoms, so it’s important to stay on track with regular screening.
A lipid profile, or lipid panel, is a simple blood test that measures your levels of:
- HDL cholesterol (aka “good cholesterol”)
- LDL cholesterol (aka “bad cholesterol”)
- Total blood (or serum) cholesterol
The exact definition of “healthy” cholesterol and triglyceride levels depends on a variety of health factors and may vary by individual. Below are general guidelines, however it’s important to work with your doctor to determine your target range.
- A healthy range for total cholesterol is typically considered to be less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL)
- A healthy range for HDL cholesterol is typically considered to be higher than 40 mg/dL for men and higher than 50 mg/dL for women
- A healthy range for LDL cholesterol is typically considered to be less than 100 mg/dL
- A healthy range for triglycerides is typically considered to be less than 150 mg/dL
If your cholesterol and triglycerides are in what your doctor considers to be a healthy range, the recommended frequency for screening is usually every 4-6 years. If you are at a higher risk for heart health issues, you may need more frequent screenings.
In most cases, a doctor will recommend lifestyle changes as the starting point of treatment for hyperlipidemia.
Diet is one of two main sources of cholesterol — the other being your liver — so revisiting your dietary choices is a simple way to rebalance cholesterol and/or triglyceride levels.
Aim to reduce your consumption of saturated fats such as red meat and full-fat dairy products, which increase blood levels of LDL cholesterol. Avoid trans fats such as baked goods, fast food, vegetable shortening, and margarine as much as possible.
Healthy foods to load up on include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, poultry, fish, and nuts.
Exercise is another component of managing hyperlipidemia — and of practicing an overall heart-healthy lifestyle. The American Heart Association suggests 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week, or about 30 minutes of moderate to intense exercise each day.
If you are just beginning to develop your workout routine, remember that the important thing is to start somewhere, and you can always work your way up to more intense exercise.
If you have unhealthy cholesterol or triglyceride levels, smoking further increases your risk of heart health issues. If you currently smoke, ask your doctor for smoking cessation resources. If you don’t smoke, try to limit your exposure to secondhand smoke.
Medication may be prescribed to improve cholesterol or triglyceride levels if lifestyle changes aren’t sufficient.
The following types of medications are commonly used to lower cholesterol:
- Statins such as atorvastatin (Lipitor®) and fluvastatin (Lescol®) act on the liver to prevent cholesterol from forming. They are the most common cholesterol-lowering medication.
- The cholesterol absorption inhibitor Ezetimibe (Zetia®) is the most commonly used non-statin cholesterol medication.
- ACL inhibitors such as bempedoic acid (Nexletol®) are often taken in combination with statins to further lower cholesterol in individuals with heart disease. These medications target a certain enzyme to block production of cholesterol in the liver.
For a closer look at cholesterol-lowering medication options, read How to Manage High Cholesterol: Diet, Medications, and More.
The following types of medications are commonly used to lower triglyceride levels:
- Fibrates such as Gemfibrozil (Lopid®) and Fenofibrate (Antara®, Lofibra®, Tricor®, and Triglide™) - these typically aren’t recommended for those with severe kidney or liver disease
- Niacin, a B vitamin that reduces the liver’s production of blood fats
- Prescription-strength fish oil formulations such as Lovaza®
Take charge of your health
At Alto, we make it as simple as possible to stay on top of your cholesterol-lowering medications. We will work with your doctor, your insurance (if applicable), and any third party savings programs that you may qualify for to ensure your medications are as affordable as possible. And our team of pharmacists is available to chat whenever questions come up about side effects or how to take your medication properly.
To learn more, reach out any time through secure in-app messaging or by phone at 1-800-874-5881.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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