The role cholesterol plays in the buildup of arterial plaque

Arteries are blood vessels that carry blood to the heart so it can be pumped around the body. The inner walls of the arteries should be smooth, but as you age, a sticky substance called plaque can build up on the walls of the arteries. This makes it more difficult for blood to flow through.

Plaque in the arteries is known as atherosclerosis. If left untreated, atherosclerosis can cause heart attack, stroke, or other serious conditions.

Cholesterol, a type of fat or lipid, is an important component of dental plaque. We naturally produce cholesterol in our bodies and also get it from the foods we eat.

You’ve probably heard enough warnings that cholesterol is bad for you. But cholesterol is not always bad. It is necessary for your body to produce hormones, create new cells, and make chemicals that aid your digestion.

Problems occur when there is too much cholesterol circulating in the blood.

The good news is that there are ways to change your diet and medications you can take to prevent cholesterol from building up in your arteries.

For most people, high blood cholesterol is caused by a diet high in saturated fats, cholesterol, and trans fats. These types of fats are in foods that are often considered “unhealthy,” such as fried foods, fast foods, processed meats, full-fat dairy products, baked goods, and sweets.

Your genetics can also affect your chances of developing high cholesterol. If your parents have high cholesterol, you may be at higher risk of getting it. High cholesterol can also be caused by a genetic condition known as familial hypercholesterolemia, but this is rare.

High cholesterol is very common in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that nearly 94 million adults 20 years or older have what might be considered borderline high cholesterol.

Researchers aren’t exactly clear on how the process of plaque buildup begins, but they believe it starts with damage or inflammation in the artery. Once that damage occurs, high cholesterol floating in the blood can get stuck in the arteries along with a few other substances. This is called plaque.

Plaque consists of:

  • calcium
  • fat
  • cholesterol
  • cellular waste
  • fibrin (a substance your body uses to help blood clot)

Cholesterol plays an important role in the formation of dental plaque. Cholesterol moves through the blood via substances called lipoproteins.

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also called “bad cholesterol,” is the largest contributor to arterial plaque. On the other hand, high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good cholesterol,” is believed to remove some of the bad cholesterol from plaque in clogged arteries. Having high amounts of bad cholesterol and low amounts of good cholesterol is considered the perfect recipe for atherosclerosis.

There are a few other factors known to accelerate plaque buildup in the arteries. Among which:

Age is also a factor. As you age, your arteries tend to stiffen and become less elastic. This makes them more susceptible to dental plaque.

As plaque builds up, it triggers a series of reactions in the body that lead to more inflammation and more plaque.

You probably won’t experience any symptoms of clogged arteries until the condition becomes severe or results in a heart attack or stroke.

If an artery of the heart is severely blocked, you may experience the following symptoms:

If a blood vessel in the brain is blocked, you may experience stroke symptoms such as:

If you experience any of these symptoms, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible.

The best test to check for clogged arteries of the heart is called a cardiac angiogram. This is a type of chest x-ray that is done after your heart arteries are injected with a mildly radioactive dye. It is considered the best method for diagnosing conditions affecting the arteries around the heart. This type of imaging test allows a doctor or healthcare provider to see if there is a blockage in one of your arteries.

But before imaging, a doctor will likely perform a physical exam to see if you have any signs that your blood isn’t flowing as it should. For example, a weak pulse or wounds that heal slowly could mean that your blood flow is restricted.

A cardiologist (a doctor who specializes in treating heart disease) can listen to your heart to see if there are any abnormal sounds, such as a heart murmur or bruit (the name of a swishing sound the blood makes when it flows through a blocked artery ). ).

If a doctor suspects you have atherosclerosis, they will likely order a cardiac angiogram or other tests to confirm the diagnosis. These tests include:

  • electrocardiogram, a test to record the electrical activity of your heart
  • echocardiogram, an important test to study the function of your heart and show abnormalities and effects of clogged arteries
  • computed tomography angiography, a noninvasive imaging test that produces an image of the inside of the arteries
  • doppler ultrasound, an imaging test that uses high-frequency sound waves to help see blood flow in the arteries and can help determine if you have peripheral vascular disease
  • magnetic resonance angiography, a test to help visualize blood flow problems in the heart or arteries

A doctor will also likely take a blood sample to find out if you have high cholesterol and measure your blood pressure. They may also do a stress test to help understand how the heart responds to exercise. This test is also known as an exercise tolerance test. It is used to record the electrical activity of the heart while you are engaged in physical activity. For those unable to exercise, a nuclear stress test may be used.

Making heart-healthy changes to your diet isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. It’s important to take it one day at a time and try to slowly and permanently incorporate positive changes into your lifestyle. It’s not about focusing on avoiding one “bad” food or never eating sweets again, but instead changing your overall diet.

In general, here are some diet and lifestyle changes you can make to help prevent plaque buildup in your arteries:

And here are a few other tips:

A doctor can prescribe medication to help lower high blood pressure and cholesterol. Some examples are:

If your artery is severely blocked, surgery may be needed to prevent heart attacks or strokes. A surgeon can remove plaque from an artery or reroute blood flow around the blocked artery.

When plaque builds up in the arteries, it can harden and block the artery. This can stop blood flow through the arteries and cause heart disease, stroke, peripheral arterial disease, or heart attacks.

You may not have symptoms of high cholesterol or plaque buildup until the condition becomes severe. It is important that you see a doctor regularly for wellness checkups to find out if you are at risk for heart disease.

Although the American Heart Association recommends that adults have their cholesterol levels checked at least every 4 to 6 years. If you already have high cholesterol or if you have certain risk factors, a doctor will encourage you to get your cholesterol tested more often.

The role cholesterol plays in the buildup of arterial plaque

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