Yes, elevated blood cholesterol is bad news, and 34 million Americans have levels that can increase their risk of all sorts of health problems, including a heart attack.
But if you think you’ve heard everything you need to know about this waxy fat, there may be a few surprises in store.
For one, cholesterol can be so high that it shows up in fatty deposits in the skin. On the other end of the spectrum, cholesterol can even be too low.
High cholesterol inevitable for some
If you have sky-high cholesterol, it may be partly genetic. But for some families, it’s inevitable that LDL, or bad cholesterol, will be in the unhealthy zone. The disease, known as familial hypercholesterolemia, affects about 1 in 500 people and can cause total cholesterol levels from 300 mg/dL to 600 mg/dL, as well as heart attacks early in life.
Some people with familial hypercholesterolemia inherit two defective genes (one from each parent), a much rarer condition that affects 1 in 1 million people; they can have total cholesterol over 1000 mg/dL. Such high cholesterol can cause early death, often before age 20.
Clogged arteries look like butter
Even if you can’t see xanthomas on the skin, high cholesterol can still build up in the body.
LDL slowly builds up in artery walls, causing a thick plaque that can narrow arteries, restrict blood flow, and lead to blood clots.
Arteries thicken, become more rigid, and start to take on the yellow color of cholesterol. If you were able to take a look at the inside of cholesterol-clogged arteries, they would look as if they were lined with a thick layer of frozen butter!
You can see high cholesterol
Normally, you only know you have high cholesterol levels if a doctor tells you so. But it is possible for high cholesterol to be as plain as the nose on your face, showing up on the skin as reddish-yellowish bumps known as xanthomas.
The patches vary in size and can be found all over the body, including on the joints, hands, and eyelids (though not all eyelid xanthomas are caused by high cholesterol). They tend to occur in older people and in those with diabetes or other health problems.
Xanthomas are also more likely to be seen in people with familial hypercholesterolemia, who can even have them in infancy.
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