Story by: David Steen Martin; Reviewed by Steven Patton, D.O. on January 29, 2024
You need some blood cholesterol. You couldn’t live without it. But if you have too much cholesterol, your body can’t use it all, and the effects can be cardiovascular disease.
Excess cholesterol builds up in your arteries. It combines with other substances to form fatty deposits, or plaque. Year after year, the plaque builds up, limiting blood flow through the arteries and increasing your chances of developing heart disease.
Though you may not feel any symptoms, high cholesterol can be dangerous. A plaque deposit in a blood vessel can break loose suddenly, forming a clot that causes a heart attack or stroke.
There are two types of cholesterol, HDL and LDL. HDL is known as the “good cholesterol.” It works like a garbage truck to remove cholesterol from your bloodstream and return it to the liver for disposal. LDL is the “bad cholesterol.” It is the LDL cholesterol that builds up in your arteries as plaque.
A buildup of plaque in your arteries is called atherosclerosis, which can reduce the amount of oxygen-rich blood reaching vital organs throughout your body. Atherosclerosis can result in:
According to the American Heart Association, one form of bad cholesterol combined with high blood pressure can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease such as heart attack or stroke by 24%.
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In addition, high cholesterol levels can result in vascular disease, chest pain called angina, erectile dysfunction and vascular dementia.
Age, a high-fat diet, being overweight, and a lack of exercise are all linked to high cholesterol levels. Smoking is also a risk factor because it also lowers your HDL cholesterol level.
As you get older, less of the bad, LDL, cholesterol is absorbed by your cells, meaning there is more remaining in your bloodstream. From there it can accumulate in your arteries.
Food is also linked to cholesterol. Fatty and fried foods are also linked to the cholesterol in your blood. For some people, there is a strong connection between diet and high blood cholesterol. For others, it’s a much weaker connection, though researchers aren’t sure why.
Weight is also among the risk factors for high cholesterol. The more you’re overweight, the more cholesterol your body will produce. In fact, every extra 10 pounds you’re carrying will result in your body producing as much as an additional 10 milligrams of cholesterol every day.
Among women, estrogen declines with age, and this, too, may result in higher cholesterol levels as women approach menopause.
“Lowering your cholesterol level is an excellent way to reduce your heart disease risk,” said Steven Patton, D.O., family medicine physician with Norton Community Medical Associates primary care and one of Norton Healthcare’s community medical directors. “Exercise and a healthy diet can help. A low-cholesterol diet may include spinach and leafy greens, high-fiber foods such as beans and broccoli, whole grains, fruits, berries, and walnuts or other nuts.”
The only way to know for sure if you have high cholesterol is to get a blood test called a lipid panel. This will give you your total cholesterol and your LDL and HDL cholesterol levels.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends blood cholesterol level tests for everyone, including children.
You can get a cholesterol test at an annual visit with your primary care doctor. They will conduct a test called a lipid panel via a blood draw. You can get blood tests at the drive-thru Norton Healthcare Express Services if that is more convenient. Test results are always available via Norton MyChart.
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