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Cholesterol. Get Your Fats Straight!

Medically reviewed by C. Fookes, BPharm. Last updated on May 4, 2018.

Confused About The Difference Between Lipids, Fats And Cholesterol?

You're not alone! And it seems a lot of health professionals are confused as well, the way these terms are often bandied about in the same sentence.

Lipids is the umbrella term used to describe compounds that do not dissolve in water and includes fats, oils, lipoproteins, waxes, sterols (including cholesterol), and triglycerides. Lipids is the correct term to describe both fats and cholesterol.

Fats are large molecules with a specific type of structure that allows more energy storage than carbohydrates.

Cholesterols are a unique type of fat with quite a complicated structure.

Confusion Multiplied: Cholesterol Tests Actually Measure Lipoproteins

When your doctor tells you your "cholesterol" levels are high, what he/she really means is that your lipoprotein levels are not within the "normal range". "Cholesterol" tests measure:

  • Total "cholesterol"
  • Low Density Lipoproteins (LDL)
  • High Density Lipoproteins (HDL)
  • Triglycerides

"Cholesterol" is in quotation marks because all of these molecules are made of triglycerides + cholesterol + phospholipids + protein, in varying quantities. They are NOT just cholesterol.

Guidelines Differ In Recommendations For Cholesterol Monitoring

In actual fact, "cholesterol" blood tests only actually measure total cholesterol and HDL. The LDL and triglyceride component are just calculated using a mathematical equation.

Internationally, some professional bodies have recognized this shortcoming and have changed their guidelines to accommodate this less-than-ideal situation. In people with high triglycerides, measuring non-HDL cholesterol levels may give a better estimate of the risk for heart disease than measuring only LDL. There also appears to be an association between non-HDL cholesterol and recurrent episodes of angina and non-fatal myocardial infarctions (heart attacks) in people with preexisting coronary heart disease.

Your non-HDL cholesterol level is found by subtracting your HDL cholesterol from your total cholesterol. Ideally, your non-HDL cholesterol level goal should be 30 mg/dL higher than your LDL cholesterol level goal.

Some Guideline Differences, Some Similarities

Although the 2016 American College of Cardiology Expert Consensus Decision Pathway still uses LDL values, they state non-HDL cholesterol values as well. In addition, they offer guidance with respect to what the anticipated response to therapy should be; for example, a 50% reduction in LDL-C or a non-HDL-C of less than 100 mg/dL.

For patients not fully responsive or intolerable of statins, this document has recommendations about use of non-statin therapies, such as ezetimibe and PCSK9 inhibitors.

The Good: Cholesterol Is Vital For Our Survival

To say that cholesterol gets a bad rap is an understatement. Its reputation for being associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke means it gets blanketed with the term BAD. But we wouldn't be ALIVE without cholesterol. Cholesterol helps our body make bile acids; vitamin D; hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, cortisol and aldosterone; and helps form cell walls. Although some cholesterol is obtained from our diet, most is made in the liver and other tissues. So if your "cholesterol" levels are high, there may be a genetic reason for it.

The Bad: High Cholesterol Is Associated With An Increased Risk Of Heart Attack Or Stroke

Experts believe that when there is too much cholesterol in your blood, it builds up on the walls of the arteries. Over time, this causes the arteries to "harden" and also attracts other cells and debris from the blood, narrowing the space that blood has to flow through. Since blood carries oxygen, tissues supplied by the narrowed blood vessel may become starved of oxygen, and cause symptoms such as angina pain or worse, a heart attack if complete blockage occurs.

Coming from a slightly different angle, other experts suggest it is inflammation, not cholesterol that starts this process. Cholesterol just happens to "latch" onto the inflamed blood vessel wall and contributes to the narrowing of the arteries.

The Ugly: Still More Questions Than Answers?

Even though it seems clear that having high blood cholesterol puts you at risk of heart disease, the whole cholesterol issue itself is more complicated than you think. Here's a few facts about cholesterol that may just leave you with more questions than answers!

  • The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, state that dietary cholesterol is "no longer a nutrient of concern for overconsumption" as there is no link between dietary cholesterol intake and heart disease. The guidelines still recommend a reduction in the intake of saturated fats, while other experts believe diets high in concentrated sugars, particularly sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup elevate cardiovascular disease risk more than diets containing saturated fats. At least everybody agrees that trans fats (those found in highly processed foods such as ready-made cakes, cookies and pie crusts), are definitely bad for you!
  • At least eight major dyslipidemia guidelines are available; variations exist in their recommendations including need to reach target LDL levels (or not). Congruent recommendations would be less confusing to doctors and the public alike!
  • Genetic high cholesterol conditions appear more common than previously thought, affecting 1:250 people overall, twice the amount previously thought; although risk varies with race and age.

Screening For Cholesterol: When Should It Happen?

All experts agree that cholesterol levels should be measured in ALL people with a history of coronary heart disease (CHD) or vascular disease (VD). However, the issue of when to screen people WITHOUT symptomatic CHD or VD is somewhat contentious.

The ACC/AHA Cardiovascular Risk Guidelines recommend all people aged 20 or older, with no previous diagnosis of cardiovascular disease (CVD), have their cholesterol levels checked every four to six years as part of a cardiovascular (CV) risk assessment.

The USPSTF takes a slightly different approach and makes recommendations about which populations would actually benefit from statin use for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease. They concluded that adults aged 40 to 75 years with no history of CVD and at least one CVD risk factor with a 10-year cardiovascular event risk of at least 10% would benefit from a low-to-moderate dose statin. Evidence was insufficient to make any recommendations for adults aged over 76 years. For all other patients, the recommendation should be based on the patient's situation.

The USPSTF also states that evidence is insufficient to recommend either for or against screening for lipid disorders in children and adolescents 20 years and younger.

Targeting Cholesterol: Treatment

Millions of people in America are prescribed treatment for high cholesterol, and statins are the most commonly prescribed medication. Statins work by inhibiting an enzyme called HMG-CoA reductase, which controls cholesterol production in the liver. As a result, blood levels of LDL in the blood are lowered. Examples of statins include:

Simvastatin and lovastatin are also available as the following combination cholesterol-lowering medications:

  • Advicor (lovastatin/niacin extended-release)
  • Simcor (simvastatin/niacin extended-release)
  • Vytorin (simvastatin/ezetimibe).

Statins: When To Initiate?

American Heart Association (AHA) and American College of Cardiology (ACC) guidelines recommend statin therapy depending on risk for cardiovascular heart disease. The AHA/ACC recommend statin therapy should be considered for:

  • Adults aged 40-75 without cardiovascular disease with a 7.5 percent or higher risk for having a heart attack or stroke within 10 years
  • People with a history of heart attack, stroke, angina, peripheral artery disease, transient ischemic attack, or other cardiovascular event
  • People aged 21 and older with very high LDL levels (190 mg/dL or higher)
  • People aged 40-75 years with diabetes (either Type 1 or Type 2).

Note that these recommendations differ from the 2016 USPSTF guidelines discussed previously.

Other Medications To Lower Cholesterol

Several other classes of medicine also lower cholesterol, such as:

PCSK9 inhibitors are a new class of cholesterol lowering medications that dramatically lower LDL cholesterol levels. Examples include alirocumab (Praluent) and evolocumab (Repatha).

Self-Help Measures

There is a lot you can do to decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease, regardless of whether or not you are already prescribed cholesterol lowering medication.

  • STOP smoking (if you smoke) and try to avoid second-hand smoke.
  • Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole foods; avoid processed foods that contain high amounts of salt and trans fats.
  • Get ACTIVE. Exercise every day and sit down less.
  • Keep your weight within a healthy range. Lose weight if you are overweight or obese.
  • If you have diabetes, take your medication as prescribed and always try to keep your blood sugar levels within the normal range.
  • Seek advice about how to limit stress and keep anger in check if you find you are always uptight.
  • Get regular cardiovascular assessments if you have a family history of heart disease or stroke, particularly if your relatives had these conditions at a young age.

Finished: Cholesterol. Get Your Fats Straight!

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Further information

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