High levels of cholesterol have been linked to a number of health problems that can, when left untreated, be fatal. Through different biological processes, high levels of cholesterol can eventually build up deposits that can lead to heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes.
Cholesterol and atherosclerosis
There are two different types of cholesterol:
- LDL, or bad cholesterol, which travels through the blood and can get attached to the walls of the arteries, causing plaque to build up.
- HDL, or good cholesterol, which pulls the bad cholesterol back into the liver, in order to force it your of your system.
Cholesterol can cause the walls of the arteries to become stiff and narrow, therefore preventing blood to flow freely inside the arteries, as it normally would. A healthy artery is characterized by elasticity, so anything that changes its natural state can be dangerous.
Atherosclerosis is a condition that gets worse in time, and doesn’t have any symptoms in its early stages. Some people wrongfully believe that it’s a condition related to the heart, but arteries can become narrow and stiff anywhere in the body.
The true symptoms of atherosclerosis will normally make an appearance when blood clots are formed, or when the arteries are so narrow, there is not enough blood supply reaching your organs. Symptoms may vary depending on which arteries are problematic:
- If the heart’s arteries are the ones affected, you can experience chest pain, which is known as angina.
- If atherosclerosis affects the arteries that supply your limbs with blood, then you may experience pain while walking or trying to lift heavier things.
- Atherosclerosis can also affect the arteries that lead to the brain, which can cause problems in speaking, blurred vision, temporary vision loss, numbness in the arms and legs, or even pain in the facial region. Any of these symptoms can be a potential warning of a pre-stroke, so it’s best if you consult with a doctor immediately.
- Sometimes, atherosclerosis can affect the arteries that lead to the kidneys. This causes hypertension, and could also lead to kidney failure.
In time, these lumps get bigger, can rupture, and can lead to the formation of blood clots. A natural consequence is the restriction of blood flow, causing the organs that are connected to those arteries to receive less blood than needed.
Consequences of high cholesterol and atherosclerosis
Once again, the potential complications of atherosclerosis depend on which arteries are blocked:
- When blood supply to the heart is limited, it can lead to coronary heart disease. This, in turn, causes a lot of chest pain, but can also lead to heart attacks and heart failure.
- Peripheral artery disease is a consequence of limited blood supply to your arms and legs. These circulation problems will make your limbs more sensitive to temperatures, but will also cause pain in your extremities, making walking or picking up things more difficult. There have also been cases of peripheral artery disease leading to gangrene, which is the tissue death.
- Carotid artery disease means that your brain isn’t receiving enough oxygen and nutrients, which are normally supplied by a healthy blood flow. One of the major complications that can appear is a stroke.
- Aneurysms are also a consequence of atherosclerosis, and they are the medical term used to describe the bulge in the artery walls. An aneurysm may show no warning signs at all, but will eventually cause pain in a more advanced stage. If an aneurysm bursts, it can lead to a series of other problems, such as internal bleeding. This generally happens very sudden, and can be a life-threatening problem.
- Chronic kidney disease may occur when atherosclerosis affects the arteries that supply blood to your kidneys. When this happens, your kidneys are no longer efficient at eliminating waste from your body.
With a complete lipid profile, doctors can see exactly what your total cholesterol levels are, as well as determine your triglycerides and LDL cholesterol. If these numbers are above the normal interval, they may also suspect potential signs of atherosclerosis, and choose to perform the following tests as well:
- Blood tests are required in order to determine your lipid panel and check your cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
- A Doppler ultrasound can help the doctor see if your blood pressure is normal in different areas of your arms and legs.
- An electrocardiogram can inform on your doctor on previous heart attacks, by monitoring the electrical signals that travel through the heart.
- The ankle-brachial index is a test that helps determine potential atherosclerosis in the arteries of your limbs. This test is particularly useful in determining whether or not you have peripheral vascular disease.
- A cardiac catheterization and angiogram reveals information on your coronary arteries. The doctor injects a dye in your arteries in order to visualize them better under the X-ray machine. This can show any potential blockages created by cholesterol deposits, but can also show arteries that are narrow and require treatment.
- Stress tests can also be performed in order to determine if you heart function properly when put under physical stress. The test can involve either riding a stationary bike, walking on a treadmill, or even administering medication that causes your heart to beat faster.
Thankfully, atherosclerosis is a treatable and preventable condition, provided that it’s not diagnosed when it has already caused too much damage. High cholesterol is one of the major causes for atherosclerosis, causing the artery walls to become hard and narrow, thus leading to deposits that cause several complications, preventing the organs from receiving the blood supply they need.