Cholesterol affects more than your Heart
It may surprise you to know that cholesterol itself isn’t bad. Cholesterol is just one of the many substances created and used by our bodies to keep us healthy.
About 75% of the cholesterol we need is produced naturally by our liver and other cells in our bodies while the rest comes from the food we eat – more specifically, animal products.
A cholesterol screening measures your level of High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) and Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL). HDL is a “good” cholesterol which helps keep the LDL cholesterol from getting lodged into your artery walls. A healthy level of HDL may also protect against heart attack and stroke, while low levels of HDL have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease.
When too much LDL circulates in the blood, it can clog arteries, increasing your risk of heart attack, stroke and peripheral vascular disease.
LDL cholesterol is produced naturally by the body, but many people inherit the genes that cause the body to make too much LDL from their parents and grandparents. Eating saturated fat, trans fats and dietary cholesterol also increases your LDL levels.
If high blood cholesterol runs in your family, lifestyle modifications may not be enough to help lower your LDL blood cholesterol. Everyone is different, so it’s important to work with your doctor to find a treatment plan that’s best for you.
Atherosclerosis is a disease in which plaque builds up inside your arteries and this usually starts in early adulthood. Arteries are the blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood to your heart and other parts of your body.
Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances found in the blood. Dr. Vakani says that over time, plaque hardens and narrows your arteries. This limits the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the various organs in your body, including your heart and brain.
Atherosclerosis can lead to serious problems, including heart attack, stroke, or even death; and it can affect any artery in the body, including arteries in the heart, brain, arms, legs, pelvis, and kidneys. As a result, different diseases may develop based on which arteries are affected:
HEART > Coronary Heart Disease
Coronary heart disease (CHD), also called coronary artery disease, is the #1 killer of both men and women in the United States. CHD occurs when plaque builds up in the coronary arteries. These arteries supply oxygen-rich blood to your heart.
Plaque narrows the coronary arteries and reduces blood flow to your heart muscle. Plaque buildup also makes it more likely that blood clots will form in your arteries. Blood clots can partially or completely block blood flow. If blood flow to your heart muscle is reduced or blocked, you may have angina (chest pain or discomfort) or a heart attack.
Plaque also can form in the heart’s smallest arteries. This disease is called coronary microvascular disease (MVD). In coronary MVD, plaque doesn’t cause blockages in the arteries as it does in CHD.
NECK > Carotid Artery Disease
Carotid (ka-ROT-id) artery disease occurs if plaque builds up in the arteries on each side of your neck (the carotid arteries). These arteries supply oxygen-rich blood to your brain. If blood flow to your brain is reduced or blocked, you may have a stroke.
LEGS, ARMS, PELVIS >Peripheral Artery Disease
Peripheral arterial disease (P.A.D.) occurs if plaque builds up in the major arteries that supply oxygen-rich blood to your legs, arms, and pelvis.
If blood flow to these parts of your body is reduced or blocked, you may have numbness, pain, and, sometimes, dangerous infections.
KIDNEY > Chronic Kidney Disease
Chronic kidney disease can occur if plaque builds up in the renal arteries. These arteries supply oxygen-rich blood to your kidneys.
Over time, chronic kidney disease causes a slow loss of kidney function. The main function of the kidneys is to remove waste and extra water from the body.
Are You at Increased Risk?
High levels of bad cholesterol are not the only risk factor that can contribute to plaque buildup. Other risk factors, such as diabetes, family history of early heart disease, high blood pressure, age, obesity, and smoking can also play a role. If you have high cholesterol plus any of these additional risk factors, talk to your doctor about how to keep your cholesterol under control.
Need a cardiologist? Visit our online Find a Physician tool at HarnettHealth.org.