Having high blood cholesterol and not addressing it is taking a gamble with your health. High cholesterol is one of many risk factors increasing your risk for heart disease. One of the hallmarks of high blood cholesterol is plaque buildup within the vessels of the body. Plaque, a waxy substance made up of cholesterol, fat, calcium, and other substances develops in the arteries and blood vessels that lead to the heart with elevated cholesterol being a common contributor to plaque accumulation increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Plaque buildup narrows blood vessels, making your heart work harder to pump blood carrying necessary nutrients and oxygen throughout the body. However, your body makes about 80% of your blood cholesterol with the other 20% coming from food sources. Cholesterol is a type of fat your body needs to aid in the digestion of fats, make hormones, and builds body cells.
Because cholesterol is a substance with important functions, there is nothing innately wrong with it in your body or blood. But when cholesterol levels become too high, then health complications can increase.
Cholesterol levels are measured by a blood test in the doctor’s office. Results from this testing will show your total cholesterol along with your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol known as “bad” cholesterol for its harmful health effects and your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol also known as “good” cholesterol for how it protects heart health. It’s when LDL is too high and HDL is too low, that plaque formation is likely to occur. It’s plaque formation that can result in heart health consequences.
Let’s take a look at common heart health complications when your cholesterol levels are too high:
- High blood pressure: Narrowed and stiffened arteries from plaque formation make it difficult for the heart to efficiently and effectively pump blood through your vessels. Initially, plaque formation, if minimal, may cause few if any symptoms. But as plaque formation builds over time, this will begin to cause a rise in your blood pressure. Blood vessels that are unable to relax like they used to, cause your heart to work much harder as it attempts to push blood flow through the stiffened arteries leading to high blood pressure. High blood pressure is a “silent killer” just like high blood cholesterol and should be monitored routinely several times a year.
- Chest pain or angina: Chest pain can be a symptom of reduced blood flow to the heart usually from plaque buildup within a blood vessel. Any signs or symptoms of chest pain need to be addressed right away. It could be a severe blockage of blood flow or a heart attack. An evaluation is necessary to find the underlying problem and treat it.
- Peripheral arterial disease: When we think of high blood cholesterol we associate it primarily with plaque buildup within arteries leading to the heart. But plaque buildup can also occur in vessels leading to your legs known as a peripheral arterial disease (PAD). Symptoms of PAD may be a pain in the legs when walking that goes away when you stop walking or you may notice that one leg feels cooler to the touch, has less hair, or appears paler than the other leg. Any signs of these symptoms need to be addressed with your doctor.
- Chronic kidney disease: The kidneys are an organ many may not associate with high blood cholesterol or plaque formation. Yet arteries that bring blood to this vital organ can be narrowed by plaque formation. As the buildup of plaque increases, this deprives the kidneys of oxygen causing permanent damage that may eventually lead to kidney failure or dialysis. If high blood pressure is not responding to treatment, this could be a sign of plaque formation blocking these arteries and vessels to the kidneys.
- Heart attack: A heart attack occurs when there is an interruption in blood flow to the heart, usually due to atherosclerosis which is the buildup of plaque that hardens and narrows artery walls. While high cholesterol is the main contributor to this scenario, other risk factors include smoking, obesity, physical inactivity, menopause in women and men over the age of 45.
- Stroke: A form of cardiovascular disease, a stroke is the sudden death of brain cells due to lack of oxygen caused by a blockage of blood flow or the rupture of an artery to the brain. The longer the area of the brain is deprived of oxygen, the greater the damage of permanent disability or death.
Ways to reduce high blood cholesterol to reduce heart health consequences
Fortunately, there are several ways to address lowering high blood cholesterol. When practiced consistently, you’ll have a better chance at reaching a healthier cholesterol range, lowering your risk for heart health complications:
- Reach a healthy body weight for your age and gender. If overweight, even just a 10-pound loss can lower LDL cholesterol
- Get moving by becoming more physically active. If it’s been a while since you’ve exercised, start off slowly, gradually building up to 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous physical activity.
- Eat more fiber-rich foods such as oatmeal, raspberries, nuts, seeds, apples, beans, and prunes. A food high in fiber makes you feel full reducing cravings and keeps your body from absorbing cholesterol.
- Spice things up by using more spices in cooking such as garlic, turmeric, ginger, black pepper, coriander, and cinnamon. For example, eating a half to one clove of garlic a day can help lower cholesterol by up to 8%.
- Stop smoking – smoking raises LDL and lowers HDL cholesterol, just the opposite of what you want. And if you are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke, your LDL cholesterol can also be raised.