Harvard Heart Letter

When high cholesterol is a family affair

An inherited form of high cholesterol — familial hypercholesterolemia — demands serious action.

Most of us with high cholesterol have the garden-variety type brought on by eating too much cholesterol and saturated fat and too few fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. More than half a million Americans, though, have a more dangerous type. It stems from an inherited error that can send harmful low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol into the stratosphere. This often undetected condition, called familial hypercholesterolemia, can cause an early heart attack, stroke, or premature death. Since the name of the disease is a mouthful, we'll refer to it as FH.

Genetic roots

The cholesterol in your bloodstream comes from two sources. Food provides some of it; your body makes the rest. Because cholesterol is a waxy substance, it can't dissolve in the watery bloodstream. To get around this problem, the body packages it with proteins and other fats into a variety of particles that mix easily with blood. One important cholesterol carrier is LDL.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »