You need a certain amount of cholesterol for overall health and wellness, but when cholesterol levels get too high, they can negatively impact nearly every system in your body. It’s important to understand how high cholesterol levels affect your heart, especially because in the United States, 95 million adults have total cholesterol levels higher than 200 mg/dL — which is considered borderline high.
Since September is National Cholesterol Education Month, our team of cardiologists at Phoenix Heart, with locations throughout the Greater Phoenix area, explain how high cholesterol levels affect your heart, often without warning or symptoms.
A waxy, fatty substance found naturally in your blood, cholesterol often gets a bad rap. But, your body needs cholesterol to build new cells, insulate nerves, and produce hormones. Your liver makes all the cholesterol your body needs, and you also get a lot of “extra” cholesterol from the foods you eat. Heredity is also a contributing factor.
When your cholesterol levels are too high, that’s when you encounter health problems, like an increased risk for heart disease.
Good vs. bad: HDLs and LDLs
There are two types of cholesterol in your blood: the “good cholesterol,” or high-density lipoproteins (HDLs), and the “bad cholesterol,” or low-density lipoproteins (LDLs). The HDLs pick up cholesterol and transport it back to your liver for disposal, and the LDLs carry cholesterol to the parts of your body that need it.
When your LDLs are at an appropriate level—meaning you don’t have too much of them in your bloodstream—it’s not a problem. However, when you have too many LDLs, which is often the case when you make poor nutritional choices—think saturated fats and trans fats—the extra LDLs can build up in your arteries and eventually clog them.
This is alarming because high cholesterol has no obvious symptoms. The only way you know if you have high cholesterol is through a blood test. The bottom line is that elevated LDLs put you at risk for heart disease and you may not even know it.
Too much plaque buildup in a coronary artery can lead to a heart attack
When cholesterol builds up in your arteries, it can lead to a variety of health problems, including stroke, reduced blood flow, gallstones, and a life-threatening heart attack. If cholesterol levels build inside a coronary artery—one that leads to your heart—it can cut off the blood flow to your heart muscle. As a result, the affected part of your heart can die, and you experience a heart attack.
Not all heart attacks are fatal, but it’s a serious health complication, regardless. For many people, a heart attack is a wake-up call to change your lifestyle and lower your cholesterol.
Prevention: What you can do about high cholesterol to lower your risk of heart disease
If it’s been a few years since you’ve had your cholesterol levels checked, we recommend getting a blood test. The National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) recommends that adults 20 years and older have their cholesterol checked at least once every five years. Based on other risk factors, such as obesity, smoking, poor diet, and diabetes, you may need to have your cholesterol checked more frequently.
It’s a good idea to make heart-healthy lifestyle changes that can lower your cholesterol and prevent further complications. Starting today, you can do any of the following to have a positive effect on cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of a heart attack:
- Lose weight
- Eat more fruits and vegetables
- Eat more whole grains
- Limit salt intake, or eliminate salt altogether
- Quit smoking
- Exercise for 30 minutes each day
- Manage stress
- Limit alcohol consumption
It’s important to note that if your cholesterol levels are dangerously high, you may also need to take medication to help lower levels, along with adopting a healthier lifestyle long term.
At Phoenix Heart, our skilled cardiologists and knowledgeable team are here to help you manage high cholesterol before it causes heart problems. We have an office location near you in Glendale, Goodyear, Anthem, Buckeye, Black Canyon City, and Phoenix, Arizona. To learn more about managing cholesterol levels through healthy living, give us a call today, or schedule an appointment online.