The Dangers Of High Cholesterol

When Ramona Richman's older sister was diagnosed with high cholesterol, Richman wasn't worried about her own risk. San Francisco Bay Area mother-of-two had her weight in control, and believed that she was eating healthy. Her doctor informed her that she also had high cholesterol. She had a reading of 269 mg/dL, which was significantly higher than her desired level of under 200 mg/dL. Richman, 48 says that Richman's sister, who had high cholesterol, was prescribed medication. Richman believes it is a genetic condition.

High cholesterol can also be caused by genes. However, obesity, inactivity, or eating high levels of saturated fats and cholesterol can all play a role. Although the liver produces all of the cholesterol that a person needs, many people consume significant amounts through their diet . No matter what the reason, high cholesterol is dangerous. High cholesterol plays an important role in atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing the arteries), which increases the chance of stroke and heart attack.

Doctors don't refer to high cholesterol as the amount of cholesterol that a person consumes from their diet . They mean how much is actually circulating in the body. Atherosclerosis is caused by elevated LDL cholesterol. This "bad" cholesterol can increase the risk of having heart attacks or dying from heart disease, according to Antonio M. Gotto Jr. MD. He's a Professor of Medicine at Weill Medical College at Cornell University, and an expert in cholesterol and atherosclerosis.

The progression of atherosclerosis can be gradual. Gotto states that it can begin early in your life. Fat streaks in adolescents' arteries can cause fatty spots. He says that autopsies performed on young men have shown "significant plaque" in their coronary vessels. It doesn't happen overnight. Gotto says that this plaque buildup could become a significant health concern over the course of time. It can increase risk for stroke and heart attacks as individuals age into their 50s, 60s and 40s. Coronary disease has a dramatic increase in males over 50 years, while it is at its lowest in females between the 50s and 60s.

What causes atherosclerosis? The inner lining of an artery is healthy and smooth. This lining can be damaged by disease and injury, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, which could lead to atherosclerosis.

Gotto said scientists aren’t certain how cholesterol affects arteries. However, Gotto explained that fatty acids in LDL can oxidize and cause damage to blood vessels walls. The more LDL in bloodstream, the greater the damage to the walls. An inflammatory reaction ensues, Gotto says. "The blood vessel reacts to injury by creating an inflammation response. This is treated as though you had scratched your finger.

When white blood cells invade the artery walls and lining, it is called atherosclerosis. The white blood cells become foam cells and accumulate fats and cholesterol. The site also holds calcium and other substances. Atherosclerotic plaques, also known as atheromas, eventually form.

Plaques can harden the arterial wall, causing it to thicken. They also bulge into bloodstreams to restrict or stop blood flow. Atheromas can rupture and cause blood clots that may lead to stroke or heart attacks. Gotto states that atherosclerosis most commonly affects the left coronary artery (one of the major arteries of heart), the carotid and abdominal arteries, as well as the right anterior descending coronary arterial [one of main arteries to the heart] in the neck.

HDL helps lower cholesterol. While LDL, which is dangerous, can cause damage to the arteries, HDL (a "good" type of cholesterol) will help. It not only reduces inflammation in the damaged arteries but also blocks LDL oxidation. Gotto states that HDL can pull cholesterol from cells along the arterial walls and return it to the liver where it can be eliminated. Higher levels of HDL are associated with lower risk for heart attack and other cardiovascular diseases.

He also suggests that you know your cholesterol levels. It's best to speak to your doctor before experiencing symptoms. Unfortunately, sudden cardiac death and cardiac arrest can be fatal for some people.

Gotto recommends that people speak to their doctor while they are still in their 20s about potential risk factors for atherosclerosis and have a blood test to determine their cholesterol level. Gotto suggests that cholesterol tests be done at least once every three years for those under 40. Once you reach 40, the test should be repeated annually.

Richman received her disturbing results. She switched from whole-milk to low-fat dairy products. She started to eat more healthy salmon. She started walking 40 minutes each day, 5 times per week. Slowly, the changes paid off. The cholesterol level of her daughter has dropped from 269 and 247 to 247. She hopes that this will allow her to stop taking cholesterol medication.

She says, "At first, it was 'Oh wow! I'm sick'." "But, I was able get my levels down. That's very encouraging."