Cholesterol is a greasy substance generally made in the liver from the fat deposits that come from food. It travels through the body by means of molecules in the blood called lipoproteins. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) are the two types of lipoproteins. LDL (bad cholesterol) transports the cholesterol from the liver to the cells while HDL (good cholesterol) works the other way around by flushing cholesterol from the cell and back to the liver. It is important to keep the level of cholesterol normal to avoid complications that may lead to serious illnesses.
When cholesterol builds up, it finds a safe haven in the artery wall. This build-up (plaque) happens through a prolonged period and causes the arteries to harden, which slows down the flow of blood to the heart. The plaque causes the arteries to become narrow (atherosclerosis), which in turn prevents the normal flow of blood to the heart, brain, arms or legs. Atherosclerosis can lead to further complications if left untreated.
Coronary Heart Disease
When the plaques that formed on the artery walls rupture, blood clots form and block the supply of blood to the heart, which can lead to coronary heart disease. Heart attacks happen when the heart receives inadequate blood supply. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), there is a greater risk of a heart attack for those individuals with higher LDL content in the blood than those who do not. Smoking cigarettes, high blood pressure, family history of heart attacks and low HDL cholesterol (less than 40 mg/dL) can increase the risk of a heart attack. Higher LDL are common in men who are at least 45 years old and women who are 55 years or older.
Similar to a heart attack, a stroke happens when the plaque that formed due to high cholesterol in the arteries that supply the brain ruptures. According to the National Stroke Association, stroke is the third leading cause of death in America and a leading cause of adult disability. The brain cells die during a stroke, which then causes losing the abilities controlled by that area of the brain, such as speech, movement and memory. It depends on where and how much impact the stroke affects a person; for example, a small stroke may only cause minor problems, such as weakness of an arm or leg, while a larger stroke may lead to paralysis on one side or impaired speech. Some people may recover from stroke completely; however, more than two-third of survivors will have some type of disability.
Lower extremity atherosclerosis affects the arteries of the legs. Often, people with this condition do not show any symptoms until the arteries become extremely narrow. Once this happens, the most common symptom is pain in the calf muscle during exercise, also known as intermittent claudication. This happens when the blood flow cannot keep up with the leg muscles’ demand for oxygen. When the condition worsens, the patient may feel the pain even when at rest, especially as the patients elevate their legs. Dryness of the skin, absence of hair growth and sore toes, heels or lower legs are the common symptoms of lower extremity atherosclerosis. In worst cases, tissue death or gangrene can set in, which can lead to amputation.