7 Complications of High Cholesterol – How to Prevent Them?
High cholesterol levels can lead to a buildup of plaque in the arteries, which can cause a host of problems.
High cholesterol can increase the risk of chest pain, coronary heart disease and heart attack.
Cholesterol is produced by the liver, is found in some foods, and plays an important role in various functions of the body. Your body needs it to build cells, and it is a major component of bile, which helps with digestion.
There is nothing wrong with cholesterol in the body or in the blood itself. However, it can cause problems if it is in the blood in too high a concentration.
There are two main types of cholesterol circulating in the blood: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) HDL, also known as “good” cholesterol, helps protect you from the harmful effects of LDL or “bad” cholesterol.
If your LDL is too high or your HDL is too low, cholesterol can combine with other substances to form hard deposits in your arteries called plaque. The formation of plaque in your blood vessels – atherosclerosis – increases your risk of a variety of health problems.
If your cholesterol levels are too high, it is important to take steps to avoid future health problems and to stop or possibly reverse problems that have already occurred.
You should take prescribed cholesterol-lowering medications, but “there’s no substitute for lifestyle, and medications can never make up for it,” Garg says.
The most important steps you can take to reduce the risk of cholesterol and health complications are not smoking, getting enough exercise, following a heart-healthy diet, and losing weight, if necessary, he notes.
Here’s what you need to know about the health complications that can arise from high cholesterol.
- High blood pressure
When the body’s arteries become narrowed due to plaque deposits, it only raises blood pressure. This is because the blood vessels are no longer able to relax effectively and move blood at healthy pressure levels.
Both high cholesterol and high blood pressure are “silent killers, meaning there are no immediate symptoms unless your levels are very high,” Garg explains, but both can damage blood vessels over time and increase your risk of further health problems.
- Coronary artery disease
Coronary artery disease develops when plaque builds up in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. Initially, this narrowing may not cause any noticeable symptoms or problems.
“If you have coronary artery disease but have not had a heart attack and have had a stent or are being treated with medication, your heart muscle may be normal,” Gager says.
But if plaque in the coronary arteries reduces blood flow to the heart enough, the heart may not be able to pump enough blood through the body, leading to heart failure. And if a blood clot forms in a coronary artery, it can cause a heart attack.
- Chest pain (angina pectoris)
Chest pain is a symptom of reduced blood flow to the heart due to a buildup of plaque in the coronary arteries.” When you see a doctor say chest pain, the first thing he or she thinks of is coronary artery disease,” Gager says.
When blood flow to the heart is significantly reduced by a blockage, the heart muscle doesn’t get the oxygen it needs, a condition called ischemia.” Ischemia activates pain receptors, Garg says.
In such cases, doctors may prescribe medications to relieve chest pain, but treating the pain doesn’t address the underlying problem of plaque deposits.
A heart attack usually occurs when a plaque ruptures in a coronary artery. In response, your body tries to repair the rupture by forming a blood clot that completely blocks the already narrowed artery and stops the flow of blood to your heart.
High cholesterol levels aren’t the only factor in the initial formation of coronary plaque.” Once a plaque forms, high cholesterol levels can also cause it to become more unstable.” It increases the risk of heart attack, Garg says.
A stroke is similar to a heart attack in that the arterial plaque ruptures, forming a blood clot. In this case, however, it occurs in the arteries leading to the brain.
A stroke occurs when a clot ruptures and penetrates deep into a blood vessel in the brain, cutting off the blood supply to some organs. As with a heart attack, the longer the patient is deprived of oxygen, the more permanent the damage becomes.
“We’re really talking about the same risk factors for heart attack and stroke,” Garg says, because if your cholesterol is high and plaque builds up in your arteries, it affects the arteries to your heart and the arteries to your brain.
- Peripheral artery disease
When plaque builds up in the blood vessels because of high cholesterol, it’s not just a problem for the heart and brain. It can also reduce blood flow to the leg muscles.
Someone has clogged arteries in their legs that block blood flow to their muscles, they will complain of pain. When they start walking, they feel pain in their legs, and when they stop walking, the pain goes away.
Pain in peripheral artery disease is due to lack of oxygen to the muscles of the lower extremities, just as chest pain in coronary artery disease is due to lack of oxygen to the heart.
- Chronic kidney disease
Most people don’t think of the kidneys as an organ that can be damaged by high cholesterol, but narrowing of the arteries leading to the kidneys is a common problem, Garg says.
A possible sign of a clogged kidney artery is high blood pressure that doesn’t respond to medication. This is because the kidneys play an important role in regulating blood pressure by filtering blood and other body fluids.
How to prevent complications
To treat or prevent complications associated with high cholesterol, the first thing patients should do is to make sure they can improve their lifestyle with the help of their health care team. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends reducing saturated and trans fats in the diet; focusing on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein; getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week; and losing excess weight.
According to the AHA, there are several medications that can lower cholesterol. The most commonly prescribed drug is a statin, which works with the liver to prevent the buildup of cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Others include PCSK9 inhibitors, selective cholesterol absorption inhibitors, bile acid, niacin and fiber. Ask your doctor which medication – or combination of medications – is best for you.