High cholesterol, or hyperlipidemia, isn’t exactly a disease itself. In fact, you can have high cholesterol and not even know it, since it doesn’t actually cause symptoms. However, high cholesterol requires treatment because it’s a major risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, heart attack, and stroke.
“We have several different ways to treat high cholesterol, depending on a person's cholesterol level [and] the side effect profile that we're looking for,” says Michelle W. Bloom, MD, hematologist and oncologist at Stony Brook Medicine.
Not all people with high cholesterol will need medications. For some people, lifestyle changes can lower cholesterol levels naturally. However, if cholesterol levels are dangerously high, or if lifestyle changes don’t lower levels enough, a doctor may recommend medications.
The most common prescription for high cholesterol is a class of medications called statins. “Statins work mainly by decreasing the body's production of cholesterol, but also helping the liver to clear cholesterol from our bodies,” says Dr. Bloom. Learn more about how statins treat high cholesterol here.
Newer Treatment Options for Hyperlipidemia
One of the newer options available for people with high cholesterol is called a PCSK9 inhibitor, or “proprotein convertase subtilisin/kexin type 9” inhibitor. These have been shown to effectively lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risks of stroke or heart attack.
PCSK9 is a protein in the body (made by the PCSK9 gene) that helps regulate cholesterol in the bloodstream, so it’s a great thing to target if you want to bring down cholesterol levels. “PCSK9 inhibitors block this protein and therefore allow the liver to do its job at sweeping away excess cholesterol in the body,” says Dr. Bloom.
Instead of a pill, PCSK9 inhibitors are given via injection every few weeks, depending on the type. PCSK9 inhibitors are sometimes used in combination with statins.
Regardless of which medication you choose, it’s important to understand your prescription before you start taking it, and to continue making healthy lifestyle choices. Your medication will always be more successful in combination with a healthy diet, an active lifestyle, and other heart-healthy habits.