A LIPID that is an important constituent of body cells and so widely distributed throughout the body. It is especially abundant in the brain, nervous tissue, adrenal glands and skin. It is also found in egg yolk and gall-stones (see GALLBLADDER, DISEASES OF). Cholesterol plays an important role in the body, being essential for the production of the sex hormones as well as for the repair of membranes. It is also the source from which BILE acids are manufactured. The total amount in the body of a man weighing 70 kilograms (10 stones) is around 140 grams, and the amount present in the blood is 3·6–7·8 mmol per litre or 150–250 milligrams per 100 millilitres.
A high blood-cholesterol level – that is, one over 6 mmol per litre or 238 mg per 100 ml – is undesirable as there appears to be a correlation between a high blood cholesterol and ATHEROMA, the form of arterial degenerative disease associated with coronary thrombosis and high blood pressure. This is well exempliﬁed in DIABETES MELLITUS and HYPOTHYROIDISM, two diseases in which there is a high blood cholesterol, sometimes going as high as 20 mmol per litre; patients with these diseases are known to be particularly prone to arterial disease. There is also a familial disease known as hypercholesterolaemia, in which members of aﬀected families have a blood cholesterol of around 18 mmol per litre or more, and are particularly liable to premature degenerative disease of the arteries. Many experts believe that there is no ‘safe level’ and that everybody should attempt to keep their cholesterol level as low as possible.
Cholesterol exists in three forms in the blood: high-density lipoproteins (HDLs) which are believed to protect against arterial disease, and a low-density version (LDLs) and very low-density type (VLDLs), these latter two being risk factors.
The rising incidence of arterial disease in western countries in recent years has drawn attention to this relationship between high levels of cholesterol in the blood and arterial disease. The available evidence indicates that there is a relationship between blood-cholesterol levels and the amount of fat consumed; however, the blood-cholesterol level bears little relationship to the amount of cholesterol consumed, most of the cholesterol in the body being produced by the body itself.
On the other hand, diets high in saturated fatty acids – chieﬂy animal fats such as red meat, butter and dripping – tend to raise the blood-cholesterol level; while foods high in unsaturated fatty acids – chieﬂy vegetable products such as olive and sunﬂower oils, and oily ﬁsh such as mackerel and herring – tend to lower it. There is a tendency in western society to eat too much animal fat, and current health recommendations are for everyone to decrease saturated-fat intake, increase unsaturated-fat intake, increase daily exercise, and avoid obesity. This advice is particulary important for people with high blood-cholesterol levels, with diabetes mellitus, or with a history of coronary thrombosis (see HEART, DISEASES OF). As well as a low-cholesterol diet, people with high cholesterol values or arterial disease may be given cholesterol-reducing drugs such as STATINS, but this treatment requires full clinical assessment and ongoing medical monitoring. Recent research involving the world’s largest trial into the eﬀects of treatment to lower concentrations of cholesterol in the blood showed that routine use of drugs such as statins reduced the incidence of heart attacks and strokes by one-third, even in people with normal levels of cholesterol. The research also showed that statins beneﬁted women and the over-70s.