WHEN Ellie Cross’s dad went to hospital with jaw pain at 39, it led to the youngster discovering she had the same high levels of cholesterol that plagued him.
John Cross had to be fitted with five heart stents, tubes to hold blocked arteries open, and Ellie’s mum Lorraine feared her daughter could also be at risk in later life.
Ellie Cross, 23, went to see a doctor about her cholesterol levels after her dad went to hospitalCredit: Oliver Dixon
A healthy adult’s cholesterol level should be 5mmol/L or below but Ellie had a reading of just under six.
The events assistant from Purley, South London, 23, says: “I’m proof that you can eat healthily, exercise regularly and look well and still have a high cholesterol.
“The doctor said my levels and the combined risk factors together with my family history put me on a par with a 40 year old.”
Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in your blood that helps build healthy cells.
Healthy cholesterol levels
BLOOD cholesterol is measured in units called millimoles per litre of blood, or mmol/L.
According to the NHS total cholesterol should be:
5mmol/L or less for healthy adults
4mmol/L or less for those at high risk
Of that, bad cholesterol (LDL) should be:
3mmol/L or less for healthy adults
2mmol/L or less for those at high risk
But high levels leave you at greater risk of heart attack or stroke, and this week a new study added a danger of Alzheimer’s to that list.
It is mainly caused by eating fatty food, not exercising enough, being overweight, smoking and drinking alcohol.
But it can also be hereditary.
Around six in ten adults have high cholesterol, according to Public Health England.
But most people are unaware they have the potentially life-threatening condition as it rarely has noticeable symptoms.
Dr Lance Forbat, a consultant cardiologist, says: “That’s why people are often so surprised when they are diagnosed.
“You may become aware you have high cholesterol following complications that arise from angina, heart attack or stroke.”
Joe Greenland, 24, was also shocked at his diagnosis, having previously believed high cholesterol “only affected granddads”.
The salesman, from Long Eaton, Derbyshire, says: “I’ll never forget when the doctor told me I had high cholesterol. The call stopped me in my tracks.
“My reading came back at 5.2, which the doctor said was too high for my age.
“I was in complete shock and kept asking if he had the right results. All sorts of thoughts were racing through my mind.
“How could I have high cholesterol when I go out on two-hour runs three times a week, walk 20,000 steps a day as part of my job, play football and referee?”
A new study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine looked at the medical records of 1.8 million people over 40 and found the strongest evidence yet of a link between cholesterol and dementia.
It comes as another study warned this week that a third of adults have two or more serious health conditions by their late forties.
Cholesterol tests are done as part of the NHS Health Check, routinely offered to everyone when they reach 40.
But scientists behind a 40-year study, published in The Lancet in 2019, suggested people as young as 25 should also be monitored.
Dr Forbat adds: “Everyone should take their cholesterol reading seriously.
“If people are more vigilant earlier in life, it will hugely reduce your risk of developing heart disease or strokes.
“I always advise my patients to follow a balanced diet with lots of fibre alongside regular exercise to maintain healthy cholesterol levels.
“However, sometimes medication like statins is required.”
It is a message both Ellie and Joe echo, believing young people are too easily “fobbed off”.
Joe Greenland was diagnosed with high cholesterol at the age of 24 despite being fit and healthyCredit: Paul Tonge
They are urging people, especially those with a medical condition, family history or heart disease, to speak to their GP about getting checked.
Ellie was 7 when her dad was taken to hospital after developing pain in his jaw, which can be a sign of a heart attack.
Ellie says: “The doctors admitted him immediately and he had to have five heart stents fitted. My mum was concerned for me because my uncle had a heart attack some years before.”
At the time, Ellie was a healthy youngster, playing tennis for Surrey, working as a coach and eating a well-rounded diet.
She says: “I felt super-healthy and wore a size ten.”
Prompted by her husband’s health scare, Ellie’s mum Lorraine booked her daughter in for a test to check her cholesterol levels, and the initial reading came back at five.
Ellie says: “The nurse told me to cut back on junk food and introduce more unsaturated fats like oily fish. I loved red meat but cut back to one portion a week and started eating more grilled chicken.”
A year later repeat test showed Ellie’s bad cholesterol had crept up again, despite her best efforts.
She says: “I was doing everything I could to stay healthy but nothing seemed to be working.
“Mum wanted me to see a cardiologist but I felt like I was being fobbed off because of my age.”
By the time Ellie saw a specialist she was 20 years old, and her cholesterol had reached a far more worrying six.
The doctor started her on statins immediately, and she has gradually upped her dose and sees her GP every six months.
She says: “I am forever grateful to my mum who didn’t stop pushing for a diagnosis.
“If you are young and there’s a family history of heart problems, know your risk and keep asking for tests.
“If you had told me I’d be on 40mg of statins (drugs that can lower cholesterol in the blood) a day by the time I was 23, I would never have believed you.”
While Ellie needs to take medication to control the condition, many people can use simple lifestyle changes.
This has worked for Joe, who only discovered his diagnosis by chance.
He suffers Type 1 diabetes and has to have regular check-ups.
He says: “If I wasn’t diabetic, I would never have known.
“There was no history of high cholesterol in my family. I thought it only affected older people, not twentysomethings.”
After tests revealed Joe’s cholesterol level was 5.2, his doctor told him he needed to make changes to his diet or go on statins.
He says: “I didn’t want to go on statins so I started to research healthy food swaps I could make.
“I stopped using full-fat butter, upped my intake of oily fish like salmon and mackerel and started making fish stews and pies.
“I stopped grating cheese on pasta and started snacking on sardines on toast.
“I still treat myself to a McDonald’s cheeseburger but now it’s once in a blue moon instead of every two weeks, and I go for a medium milkshake instead of a large.”
The changes appear to be keeping Joe’s bad cholesterol at bay.
“It’s now down to 4.2, and he has regular tests to keep track.
Joe adds: “I feel very fortunate, I only discovered this because I had my annual diabetes review.”
Joe is taking part in a new health campaign Cholesterol Uncovered, launched by Raisio Nutrition.
Fronted by Davina McCall, it aims to raise awareness of high cholesterol and how the condition can affect fit and healthy young people like Joe and Ellie.