High blood cholesterol promotes the narrowing and hardening of your arteries — a condition called atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis progresses slowly and often without early symptoms, but it can lead to a variety of complications, including heart attack and stroke.
Excess low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad," cholesterol can slowly build up in the walls of your arteries. It then combines with triglycerides — a form of fat in the blood — and other deposits such as calcium, cellular waste products and a fibrous, insoluble protein called fibrin to form plaques. These plaques can cause your arteries to narrow and harden.
Complications of atherosclerosis include:
- Chest pain. Narrowed arteries make it more difficult for oxygen-rich blood to reach the heart muscle, which can cause chest pain.
- Chronic kidney disease. If plaque builds up in the arteries in your kidneys, the organs can lose their ability to effectively remove waste and excess water from your body.
- Peripheral arterial disease. Plaque buildup in major arteries that supply blood to the limbs — usually the legs — can cause cramping, numbness and weakness.
- Heart attack. If plaques tear or rupture in a narrowed artery, a blood clot may form at that site, stopping blood flow to the heart. If the blockage occurs for long enough to damage the muscle, you'll have a heart attack.
- Stroke. If a blood clot forms and blocks an artery inside or leading to the brain or if a clot travels from the heart to the brain, you can have a stroke.
The best way to manage your cholesterol and prevent atherosclerosis is by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Avoid or limit risk factors by not smoking, eating a healthy diet and getting enough physical activity.
Also have your cholesterol checked regularly. Some people with atherosclerosis have no signs or symptoms, so their first indication is a heart attack or stroke.
If you already have high cholesterol or atherosclerosis or both, certain medications and medical procedures can treat these conditions. Talk with your doctor about possible risk factors and treatment options.