Too much bad cholesterol (LDL) or too little good cholesterol (HDL) increases the risk that a waxy buildup will line the walls of arteries, putting you at risk for heart attack or stroke.
Too much bad cholesterol or too little good cholesterol coursing through your bloodstream increases the risk that the waxy substance can start lining the walls of arteries that supply blood to the heart and brain.
That’s bad enough, but why exactly can high cholesterol cause heart disease?
Why is high cholesterol bad?
Whether the good kind — HDL — or the bad kind — LDL — cholesterol is naturally present in your blood. Cholesterol is the substance that surrounds cell membranes, keeping out fluids that would turn them to mush.
A healthy liver makes all the cholesterol your body needs. Additional cholesterol comes from eating animal fats or tropical oils often found in baked goods. Palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil can trigger your liver to make too much cholesterol.
As cholesterol builds up in the arteries, it can mix with other substances to form a thick, hard deposit of plaque. As long as the deposits stay put, all is seemingly fine. But they aren’t inclined to stay put.
“The cells at the core of the deposit are like the magma inside a volcano. Eventually, they can burst through, breaking the plaque into pieces and sending it into the bloodstream,” said Ibrahim Fahsah, M.D., cardiologist with Norton Heart Specialists. “The eruption causes clots to form. The clots can block blood flow, and that’s when a patient has a heart attack or stroke.”
My cholesterol numbers are back to normal. All good, right?
Learn your links to heart disease
Despite efforts to diagnose and treat heart disease early, many Americans are unaware of their risk. Are you one of them?
Not necessarily. The lab tests tell you how much cholesterol — good and bad — is in your blood. It doesn’t tell you how much has built up on the walls of your arteries. That’s not going away without causing damage.
If you’ve got your cholesterol under control, good job. But what’s already built up and continues to build up, just at a slower rate, can still give you heart disease.
The best any of us can do, whether we had a bad cholesterol number at some point or not, is slow the buildup inside our arteries.
What’s my risk if I’ve improved my cholesterol?
“If you’re short of breath when climbing stairs or during other activity, don’t pass it off as a symptom of aging, putting on weight or simply being out of shape,” Dr. Fahsah said.
Talk to your primary care physician and consider whether you have any of the other links to heart disease:
- High blood pressure
- Type 2 diabetes
- Family history of heart disease
- Poor sleep
- Stress or anxiety
A cardiologist can perform a low-radiation calcium scan that can identify any blockages. The test, however, often isn’t covered by insurance if you don’t have symptoms.