Why does high cholesterol increase your chances of a stroke or heart attack?

The answer is in the arteries.

Every cell in the human body needs cholesterol. The liver makes most of the body cholesterol. Only a small proportion comes from our diet. The bloodstream transports cholesterol from the liver to the other organs and tissues in the body. Spare cholesterol is transported back to the liver in the blood.

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Although cholesterol is often referred to as a “blood fat,” it is not entirely correct chemically speaking. But, like fats, cholesterol does not dissolve in water (or blood), so our bodies have a unique system to transport it. The liver packs the cholesterol into tiny parcels. Cholesterol, proteins, fats (lipids), and other things in our blood make up the parcels. They can be transported through our bodies in the bloodstream because they are mainly made up of lipids and proteins; the parcels are called “lipoproteins.” There are two different kinds of lipoproteins, which differ in how densely they are packed:

  • “LDL” cholesterol: “LDL” stands for “low-density lipoprotein.” This type of parcel transports cholesterol from the liver to the rest of the body. High LDL cholesterol levels are associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, which is why it is sometimes referred to as “bad” cholesterol.
  • “HDL” cholesterol: “HDL” stands for “high-density lipoprotein.” This type of parcel transports cholesterol back to the liver from the body’s organs and tissues. Because high levels of HDL cholesterol are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, it is sometimes called “good” cholesterol.

LDL in excess is detrimental for our body as it sticks to the inside of the artery cell walls. Arteries carry oxygenated blood from the heart to other areas of the body and the heart itself. The sticking of the cholesterol to the inner artery walls can lead to the build-up of fatty material leading to the formation of an atheroma (fat plaque). This process is called atherosclerosis. This atheroma essentially blocks a part of the artery making it increasingly difficult for the blood to flow through the arteries. This blockage can lead to more dire complications such as a heart attack. A high amount of HDL can keep this bad LDL cholesterol in check and remove it from the body.

 

Blood vessels

High cholesterol leads to a dangerous condition called atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis accumulates and deposits on the walls forming plaques in a way, “clog” up the, and this clogging makes it increasingly difficult for the blood to flow in the arteries reducing the blood flow through your arteries. This leads on to other complications:

  • Chest pain: You have arteries supplying blood to your heart called the coronary arteries. If these arteries are affected, you might feel chest pain (angina) and other classic coronary artery disease symptoms.
  • Heart attack: If the cholesterol plaques tear or rupture, a blood clot can form. This blocks the blood flow, or the free plaque can plug an artery downstream. If the blood flow to the heart is cut off, you’ll have a heart attack. 
  • Stroke: A stroke occurs similarly to a heart attack. If a blood clot blocks the blood supply to a section of the brain, it results in a stroke. 

 

Risk

There are certain lifestyle choices and conditions that put you at a higher risk of developing high cholesterol. These include:

  • Smoking 
  • High blood pressure
  • Lack of exercise
  • Overweight
  • Diabetes
  • Having a family history of premature coronary heart disease (before 55 for men and before 65 for women)

You have a higher risk of developing heart disease, the more risk factors you have. 

If you are trying to fight high cholesterol levels, a change in your diet is an excellent place to start as it can make a huge difference. Any change comes with its difficulties, and trying to switch all the high cholesterol foods with heart-healthy foods overnight can be difficult. Try and slowly switch out the unhealthy saturated fat foods with better alternatives. Check out our “What is the best cholesterol diet” article on Medzino. 

 

References

  1. 1.British Heart Foundation. High Cholesterol - Causes, Symptoms & Treatments. [Online] Bhf.org.uk. Available from: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/risk-factors/high-cholesterol
  2. 2.Mayo Clinic. High cholesterol - Symptoms and causes. [Online] Mayo Clinic. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/symptoms-causes/syc-20350800
  3. 3.CDC. Cholesterol Myths & Facts. [Online] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/features/cholesterol-myths-facts/index.html
  4. 4. What is cholesterol and how does arteriosclerosis develop?. [Online] www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2017. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279327/

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