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How Cholesterol Affects Heart Health

Heart disease is the number one cause of death among men and women in the United States. And one of the leading contributors towards heart disease is cholesterol. It’s well documented that high cholesterol is strongly associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease including heart attacks.Therefore, it’s important that individuals take an active part in keeping cholesterol levels within healthy limits.

What is cholesterol

Cholesterol is an essential body fat or lipid which is mainly used as a building block for cell structures as well as making hormones and producing energy. Cholesterol is made up from low-density lipoprotein (LDL)] otherwise known as the ‘bad cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or ‘good cholesterol’ .

LDL is the cholesterol which contributes to heart disease and it’s this waxy substance that has a tendency to stick to the artery walls. HDL is useful in reducing LDL levels by transporting it through the bloodstream and delivering it where it’s needed. HDH and LDL together with triglycerides (another type of lipid), make up the total cholesterol count.

Where cholesterol comes from

Around 75 to 80 percent of cholesterol found in the body is produced by the liver, with the rest being obtained through diet. Food originating from plants contains no cholesterol. Therefore, our dietary intake of cholesterol comes primarily from meat, fish, poultry and dairy sources. The worst source of cholesterol for our heart comes from trans fats which should be avoided at all costs. These are artificially manufactured fats which are used to preserve foods such as cakes, pies and many packaged goods to give them a longer shelf life.

How cholesterol affects the heart

For the heart muscle to work effectively, it needs an unrestricted flow of oxygenated blood pumping through its many artery walls. Cholesterol that hasn’t been adequately carried through the bloodstream (LDL) begins building up inside the artery walls, laying down deposits and hardening. This causes a ‘furring’ which is called plaque and is much like the buildup of scale inside a kettle. If a section of plaque breaks off, it can form a blood clot which leads to a heart attack.

Furthermore, once the artery walls become too narrow, the heart muscle has to work harder putting more strain on the heart. Over time, the heart muscles can become damaged and if left untreated will gradually die, eventually leading to cardiac arrest.

Controlling cholesterol levels

Cholesterol levels are the result of a number of factors including, diet, age, lifestyle and genetics. It is possible to control cholesterol levels to some extent, for instance by eating a healthy diet low in saturated fats, eliminating all trans fats and taking sufficient exercise.

However, not everyone can control their cholesterol levels. Those with a family history of heart disease may find they have a higher risk of a type of genetic disorder, whereby they are unable to properly clear cholesterol through diet and exercise alone. Even those who are very slim and healthy may have high cholesterol levels and require medication if they are unable to lower their cholesterol through diet alone.

It’s impossible to know whether someone has a high cholesterol level without having a blood test. Therefore, anyone with a history of heart disease in their family should be tested. Furring of the arteries can start as early as childhood so eating a healthy, low fat diet combined with an active lifestyle should be encouraged as much as possible for those most at risk. The effects of cholesterol on heart health can be kept under control through diet and exercise but some people may require further help in the form of cholesterol lowering medication.

Sources:

Health.com
Young Womens Health.org
NHS