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Dyslipidemia (high blood fats)
What is dyslipidemia?
Dyslipidemia is the presence of an abnormally high level of lipids (fats) or lipoproteins (fat-carrying proteins) in the blood. Lipids are an important part of the body - they are crucial in the formation of cells and as an energy source that our body can break down and use. Sometimes the level of lipids can be abnormally high, which can cause health risks. High levels of lipids and lipoproteins in the blood can build up in the arteries, causing them to harden, become narrow and restrict blood flow, leading to heart attack or stroke.
What are lipids?
Cholesterol and triglycerides need to be bound to proteins, known as lipoproteins, for them to be transported in the bloodstream to all areas of the body. There are many different lipoproteins with different functions, which collectively help control the level of triglyercides and cholesterol in the blood. The two main lipoproteins that have the greatest influence on the level of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood are low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). LDL help move lipids from the liver to around the body, and often into blood vessel walls. The progressive accumulation of lipids in the vessel walls gives rise to the abnormal hardening and narrowing of blood vessels, known as atherosclerosis. For this reason, LDL is known as 'bad fats'. In contrast, HDL help move lipids to the liver for disposal, hence helping to reduce the risk of artherosclerosis. HDL are known as 'good fats'.
An excess of cholesterol and triglycerides can pose a risk to a person's health. Numerous factors can lead to high blood lipids, including intake of excess dietary fats, imbalance in lipoprotein levels, cigarette smoking, or certain medications.
The causes of dyslipidemia are classed as either primary (genetic), or secondary (lifestyle and other causes).
Primary causes refer to gene mutations that alter the production of lipids or lipoproteins. Genes are comprised of DNA and are the codes within your cells that define what gets made - similar to a recipe. Sometimes, genes can mutate to create more or less of what they are supposed to make. Some people with dyslipidemia have genes that create excess triglycerides, cholesterol or LDL. Alternatively, they could have genes that cause the underproduction of HDL. Individuals with gene mutations tend to have a family history of the condition.
Secondary causes of dyslipidemia are related to lifestyle or other medical conditions. A common cause of dyslipidemia is a diet rich in oily or processed foods; in particular, a diet that contains too much saturated fat, cholesterol and trans fats, but is low in unsaturated fats (these are considered healthy fats, which can lower blood cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease).
Other causes can include:
Risk factors associated with dyslipidemia include:
- A family history of dyslipidemia;
- Alcohol abuse;
- Increased age;
- Physical inactivity;
- A diet high in fats, and;
Dyslipidemia can be classified into various types, depending on which lipid there is too much of in the blood. The types include:
Signs and symptoms
In most cases, dyslipidemia does not have any symptoms. It is therefore important to monitor the levels of the different types of lipids in your blood via blood tests. In some cases, dyslipidemia can lead to more serious conditions that do have symptoms, such as heart disease and pancreatitis. Rarely, dyslipidemia can lead to fatty deposits in the iris of the eye (which appears as a white ring around the iris), within tendons (which appear as painless nodules around joints, called xanthoma) and under the skin (which appear as yellow lesions on and around the eyes, called xanthelasma).
Methods for diagnosis
Dyslipidemia is diagnosed using a blood test. This identifies the levels of various lipids including triglycerides, total cholesterol, cholesterol bound to LDL (LDL cholesterol) and cholesterol bound to HDL (HDL cholesterol). To get the most accurate result, this is done as a 'fasting test', in which you do not eat for a period of time before your test.
Types of treatment
The aim of treatment is to alter the amount of lipids in your blood to a healthy level. The general recommended goals include reducing triglyceride levels to less than 1.5 mmol/L, total cholesterol to less than 4.0 mmol/L and LDL cholesterol to less than 2.5 mmol/L, and increasing HDL cholesterol to more than 1.0 mmol/L. However, if you have certain underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes, some of these target levels are even lower.
If your lipid levels are only slightly outside the healthy range, diet and lifestyle changes may be the only treatment required. If your condition is more severe, your doctor can prescribe medications to alter your cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Diet and lifestyle changes
Diet and lifestyle changes that can help to treat dyslipidemia include:
- Keeping a healthy body weight;
- Healthy eating by reducing your intake of foods that have a high fat, cholesterol and salt content;
- Eating more fibre, fruit and green vegetables and fish;
- Reducing your alcohol intake;
- Quitting smoking;
- Exercising regularly, and;
- Drinking more water.
Depending on the type of lipid disorder, various lipid-lowering medications can be used. Your doctor may prescribe one or more of the following medications:
Potential complications associated with dyslipidemia are related to excess lipids building up in the inner walls of your arteries over time - this is known as atherosclerosis, which causes the arteries to harden and narrow. When this occurs in the arteries that supply blood to the heart, it can cause a condition called coronary artery disease. If an artery becomes completely blocked by a blood clot, it can stop the flow of blood to the heart, preventing the heart tissue from getting enough oxygen. This can cause a heart attack. Coronary artery disease can also cause the heart to weaken over time and contribute to congestive heart failure. Dyslipidemia can also cause peripheral vascular disease, which involves atherosclerosis occurring in other parts of your body. In addition, it can also lead to a stroke.
In most cases, dyslipidemia is a treatable condition. For some people, this involves making diet and lifestyle changes, while for others it will also require them to take medication to bring lipid levels into a healthy range. It is important to begin treatment as soon as possible to avoid any long-term complications associated with dyslipidemia.
In some cases, dyslipidemia can be caused by gene mutations creating high levels of lipids in the blood. Gene mutations cannot be prevented. In many other cases, however, dyslipidemia is caused by diet and lifestyle factors that can be altered to help prevent the condition. These can include maintaining a healthy body weight, reducing fat, avoiding food high in fat and salt, eating more fruit and vegetables and fish, quitting smoking and exercising regularly. It is important to have regular blood tests as part of your general health checks, particularly if you are overweight or have a history of dyslipidemia. This can help to identify any abnormal levels of lipids in your blood and make a treatment plan.