Hyperlipidemia (High Blood Cholesterol)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 71 million American adults have high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol, and that less than half receive treatment for their condition.

Hyperlipidemia describes a condition in which a patient has high levels of lipids (bad cholesterol and triglycerides). Such individuals also may have low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good," cholesterol in their blood. It is a significant risk factor for heart disease and stroke, and it often (but not always) coexists in patients who are obese. People are considered to be obese when their body mass index (BMI) is more 30. BMI, which is determined by dividing a person’s weight by their height, is used to estimate body fat levels.

Treating hyperlipidemia and obesity is critical for maintaining a healthy heart. The Prevention of Heart and Vascular Disease Program at Brigham and Women's Hospital’s (BWH) Heart & Vascular Center is a world leader in treating hyperlipidemia and other risk factors that contribute to the development of heart and vascular disease. For almost a century, our specialists have been delivering the most innovative and comprehensive care for patients with complex disorders of the heart, blood vessels and circulation.

Our cardiovascular services span the entire spectrum of patient care, ranging from cardiovascular disease prevention and detection to pharmacologic and interventional treatment. We offer patients personalized care and expertise that includes ongoing communication and education throughout treatment, outpatient care and follow-up.

Hyperlipidemia Topics

Risk Factors for Hyperlipidemia

There are a number of factors that may contribute to the development of hyperlipidemia, including:

  • Age
  • Family history of high blood cholesterol
  • Obesity and diabetes
  • Eating foods high in cholesterol and saturated fat
  • Smoking tobacco
  • Sedentary lifestyle
Symptoms of Hyperlipidemia

Usually, hyperlipidemia has no signs or symptoms. However, you can determine whether you have high levels of bad cholesterol and triglycerides by getting a blood test from your health care provider.

Diagnosis of Hyperlipidemia

The human body needs cholesterol to work properly, but excess cholesterol can promote the formation of plaque along artery walls (atherosclerosis). This, in turn, can lead to abnormal narrowing and stiffening of the arteries.

It is important for patients aged 20 years and older to get a full lipid profile, which shows the levels of each type of fat (LDL, HDL, triglycerides, and others) in your blood. Your physician will determine lipid goals based on your personal and family history. In general, however, the following are healthy levels:

  • LDL – less than 130 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl)
  • HDL – greater than 40 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl)*
  • A total cholesterol level below 200 mg/dl
  • Triglycerides – less than 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl)

*High levels of HDL are good, as this type of cholesterol helps to extract LDL (bad) cholesterol from the bloodstream.

Treatment for Hyperlipidemia

A variety of factors affect a person’s blood cholesterol level. Some of these things cannot be changed, such as age, gender, or a family history of high blood cholesterol. Patients, however, can help prevent or lower high blood cholesterol by:

  • Following a heart-healthy diet
  • Being active every day
  • Quitting smoking
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

Treatment that lowers cholesterol in the blood has become the cornerstone of prevention of future heart attack, stroke and death, both in persons who already have heart disease and in those who are at risk. According to the American Heart Association, nearly 38 million patients in the United States would benefit from the combination of diet and cholesterol-lowering medicines, and an additional 30 million should follow diet and exercise programs to reduce cholesterol levels. Unfortunately, cholesterol-lowering treatment is widely underused.

Cholesterol-lowering medications that your doctor may prescribe include:

  • Statins - simvastatin (Zocor), atorvastatin (Lipitor), rosuvastatin (Crestor), and pravastatin (Pravachol)
  • Bile acid sequestrants colesevelam (Welchol), cholestyramine (Questran), and colestipol (Colestid)
  • Nicotinic acid (niacin)
What You Should Expect

The BWH Heart & Vascular Center is located in the Shapiro Cardiovascular Center across the street from BWH’s main 75 Francis Street entrance. The Heart & Vascular Center brings together the full range of services in one location, fostering seamless and coordinated care for all cardiovascular patients.

Multidisciplinary Care

Patients benefit from the teamwork of cardiovascular specialists who work alongside nurses, physician assistants, physical therapists, dietitians and social workers to achieve outstanding outcomes for our patients.


Learn more about hyperlipidemia in our health library.

Visit the Kessler Health Education Library in the Bretholtz Center where patients and families can access computers and knowledgeable staff.

Access a complete directory of patient and family services.

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