High cholesterol can contribute to the buildup of plaque in the arteries, which leads to a wide range of problems. This is because high cholesterol can increase the risk of chest pain, coronary heart disease, and heart attacks. Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance produced by the liver and also found in some foods that plays an important role in many different bodily functions. It is needed by the body to build cells and is an important component of bile, which aids in digestion. The presence of cholesterol in the body or in the blood is not inherently bad. But problems can arise if blood levels are too high.
There are two main types of cholesterol that circulate in the blood: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). HDL, also known as “good” cholesterol, helps protect against the damaging effects of LDL or “bad” cholesterol. If your LDL level is too high or your HDL level is too low, cholesterol can combine with other substances to form a hard deposit inside your arteries called plaque. The formation of plaques in the blood vessels, atherosclerosis, increases the risk of developing various health problems.
When LDL cholesterol is high, it can be very dangerous. Traditionally, it causes heart attacks, strokes, and clogged arteries.
But your total cholesterol level, which includes HDL, LDL and a percentage of your triglyceride level, is also important because it typically tracks LDL cholesterol closely.
If your cholesterol level is too high, it’s important to take steps to lower it to prevent future health problems or to stop or possibly reverse problems you’ve already developed.
The most important steps you can take to lower your cholesterol levels and your risk of health complications are not smoking, getting enough exercise, eating a heart-healthy diet, and losing weight if you need to.
The most common health complications that can develop due to high cholesterol
1. High blood pressure
If the arteries in your body become narrowed due to plaque deposits, your blood pressure can only increase. This is because your blood vessels can no longer relax as efficiently to allow your blood to flow at a healthy level of pressure. Both high cholesterol and high blood pressure are silent killers, with no direct symptoms unless levels are extremely high. But both can damage blood vessels over time, increasing the risk of other health problems.
2. Coronary artery disease
Coronary artery disease develops when plaque deposits form in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. At first, this narrowing may not cause any obvious symptoms or problems. If a person has coronary artery disease but has not had a heart attack and the disease was treated with a stent or medication, the heart muscle may be normal.
But if plaque in the coronary arteries reduces blood flow to the heart enough, it can lead to heart failure, which is the heart’s inability to pump enough blood around the body. And if a blood clot forms in the coronary arteries, it can lead to a heart attack.
3. Chest pain (angina pectoris)
Chest pain is a common symptom of reduced blood flow to the heart due to plaque buildup in the coronary arteries. If you see a doctor for chest pain, one of the first things you’ll think of is coronary artery disease. When a blockage severely reduces blood flow to the heart, the heart muscle doesn’t get the oxygen it needs, a condition known as ischemia. This ischemia can then activate pain receptors.
4. Heart attack
A heart attack usually occurs when a piece of plaque breaks off in a coronary artery. In response, your body tries to repair the tear by forming a clot, which completely blocks the already narrowed artery and stops blood flow to your heart. High cholesterol is not just a factor in the initial formation of plaque in the coronary arteries. Once plaque has formed, high cholesterol can also make the plaque more unstable, increasing the risk of a heart attack.
A stroke is similar to a heart attack in that it can involve the rupture of arterial plaque and the formation of a clot. But in this case, it happens in an artery that goes to the brain. A stroke occurs when a clot breaks loose and travels deeper into the blood vessels of your brain, cutting off blood to part of the organ. As with a heart attack, the longer the area is deprived of oxygen, the more permanent the damage.
6. Peripheral arterial disease
When high cholesterol levels cause plaque to build up in your blood vessels, the heart and brain aren’t the only areas where problems can arise. You may also notice decreased blood flow to your leg muscles. If a person has a clogged artery in their leg that is blocking blood flow to the muscle, they will complain of pain. When he starts to walk, he feels pain in his leg, and when he stops walking, this pain goes away. Pain in peripheral arterial disease is due to reduced oxygen to the leg muscles, just as chest pain in coronary artery disease is caused by the heart not getting enough oxygen.
7. Chronic kidney disease
Most people don’t think of their kidneys as organs that can be damaged by high cholesterol, but narrowing of the arteries leading to the kidneys is a common problem. If a large enough blockage forms, the kidneys will be deprived of oxygen over time, causing permanent damage. One of the possible signs of clogged renal arteries is high blood pressure that does not respond to drug treatment. In fact, the kidneys play a key role in regulating blood pressure by filtering the fluids present in our body, including blood.
How to prevent complications
To treat or prevent any complication related to high cholesterol, the first thing patients need to do is identify aspects of their lifestyle that can be improved. First, be sure to reduce saturated and trans fats in your diet, focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, exercise at a moderate intensity for at least 150 minutes per week, and lose excess weight.
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