Hyperlipidemia is a big word for a very common condition. If you have hyperlipidemia, you have too many fats, like cholesterol and triglycerides, in your blood.

Over time, this condition can lead to serious problems, including heart attack, stroke, and peripheral artery disease. The good news is that hyperlipidemia can be treated and, in some cases, prevented.

What Are Lipids?

Lipids are types of fat in your body. While you need a certain amount for your body to work properly, a high level can lead to serious health problems. Hyperlipidemia is the medical term for a high level of lipids, including cholesterol and triglycerides, in your blood.

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that your body makes naturally and is also found in foods like meat, fish, poultry, egg yolks, and whole milk dairy products. Your body needs cholesterol to help make hormones and digest food.

There are two types of cholesterol, including:

  • High-density lipoproteins (HDL), or “good” cholesterol. A higher level is better, because HDL helps take some of the “bad” cholesterol out of your body.
  • Low-density lipoproteins (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol. A lower level is better, because LDL is linked to the buildup of plaque in your blood vessels.

Triglycerides are a type of fat that your body makes naturally and that are also found in many foods. After you eat, your body converts any calories you don’t burn off into triglycerides and stores them to release later for energy. But if you don’t burn off more calories than you take in, you don’t release triglycerides. A lower level is better, because triglycerides are also linked to the buildup of plaque in your blood vessels.

RELATED: Cholesterol Basics: What You Need to Know

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Who Is at Risk of Hyperlipidemia?

Hyperlipidemia is very common in the United States and Europe. It can be genetic, meaning passed down in families, or caused by lifestyle factors.

In some cases, a defect in a gene can keep your body from removing “bad” cholesterol. This condition, known as familial hypercholesterolemia, is present from birth and may cause heart problems early in life.

In many cases, lifestyle factors can lead to hyperlipidemia. These include:

  • Eating a high-fat diet
  • Not getting enough physical activity
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having diabetes

Is it dangerous?

Hyperlipidemia is linked to atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, which happens when your blood vessels become hard or narrow because of plaque buildup. This can lead to serious, even life-threatening complications like:

RELATED: Everyday Ways to Help Your Heart

How Do I Know If I Have Hyperlipidemia?

Many people with hyperlipidemia have no symptoms. Over time, you may have symptoms based on which blood vessels are blocked. Some symptoms can include:

  • Angina, or chest pain that happens when your heart muscle can’t get enough oxygen
  • Heart attack symptoms, including:
    • Chest pain
    • Pain or pressure in your shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back
    • Shortness of breath
  • Stroke symptoms, including:
    • Sudden, severe headache
    • Weakness, numbness, tingling, or loss of movement on one side of your body
    • Trouble speaking or thinking clearly
    • Partial vision loss in one eye
  • PAD, including:
    • Leg discomfort
    • Leg pain or cramping when walking, but that goes away at rest
    • Pain in the ball of your foot or toes at rest
    • In serious cases, foot ulcers, skin discoloration, infections, and gangrene

Hyperlipidemia Testing

To find out if you have hyperlipidemia, you need a blood test that shows your cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Before the test, you’ll be asked not to eat or drink for several hours. A nurse or technician will draw blood from your arm and send it to a lab for testing. You’ll usually have results in about one week, and they will fall into one of these ranges:

  • Normal = total cholesterol less than 200 mg/dL, triglycerides less than 150 mg/dL
  • Borderline high = total cholesterol 200 to 239 mg/dL, triglycerides 150 to 199 mg/dL
  • High = total cholesterol more than 240 mg/dL, triglycerides 200 to 499 mg/dL
  • Very high = triglycerides more than 500 mg/dL

Most people should have their lipids tested every four to six years beginning at age 20. Your doctor may tell you to have tests more often based on your risk factors and family history.

Hyperlipidemia Treatments and Prevention

If you have hyperlipidemia, your doctor will develop a treatment plan based on your specific needs. Healthy lifestyle choices play a big part in treating and preventing hyperlipidemia, including:

  • Eating a heart-healthy diet that is lower in fat and sugar and higher in fiber, including fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish, and low-fat dairy products
  • Getting regular physical activity
  • Avoiding or quitting smoking

Your doctor may suggest talking with a registered dietitian — an expert on food and nutrition — who can help you make healthy food choices.

While some people may be able to lower their cholesterol and triglycerides with lifestyle changes alone, many also need medicines to help. Make sure you understand exactly how to take your medicine, and what to do if you have side effects. You should never stop taking medicines for hyperlipidemia without talking to your doctor first.

To learn more about hyperlipidemia, visit the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute or call 1-855-UPMC-HVI (876-2484).

About Heart and Vascular Institute

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.