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Cholesterol and Artery Plaque Buildup

Preventing Cholesterol Plaques

Atherosclerosis and cholesterol plaques are progressive -- meaning they get worse with time. They are also preventable. Nine risk factors are to blame for up to 90% of all heart attacks including:

  • smoking
  • high cholesterol
  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • abdominal obesity ("spare tire")
  • stress
  • not eating many fruits and vegetables
  • excessive consumption of alcohol -- more than one drink per day for women, or more than one or two drinks per day for men
  • not getting regular physical activity

You may notice almost all of these have something in common: you can do something about them. Experts agree that reducing your risk factors leads to a lower risk of heart disease.

For people at moderate or higher risk from cholesterol plaques, taking a baby aspirin a day can be important. Aspirin helps prevent clots from forming. Ask your doctor before starting aspirin, as it can have side effects.

Shrinking Cholesterol Plaques

Once a cholesterol plaque is there, it's generally there to stay. With effective treatment, though, plaque buildup may slow down or stop.

Some evidence shows that, with aggressive treatment, cholesterol plaques can even shrink slightly. In one major study, cholesterol plaques shrank 10% in size after a 50% reduction in blood cholesterol levels.

The best way to treat cholesterol plaques is to prevent them from forming or progressing. That can be done with lifestyle changes and, if needed, medication.

Drugs and Lifestyle Changes to Reduce Risk for Atherosclerosis

Reducing the risk factors that lead to atherosclerosis will slow or stop the process. Ways to reduce the amount of cholesterol in your body involves taking cholesterol and blood pressure medication, eating a healthy diet, getting frequent exercise, and not smoking. These treatments won't unclog arteries. They do, though, lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Various drugs can lower cholesterol levels including:

  • statins
  • fibrates
  • niacin
  • bile acid sequestrants

Of these, statins are the most frequently prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Procedures to Unclog Arteries

Using invasive procedures, doctors can see and unclog arteries, or provide a path for blood to go around blocked arteries. Treatments include:

  • Angiography, angioplasty, and stenting: Using a catheter inserted into an artery in the leg, doctors can enter diseased arteries. This procedure is called cardiac catheterization. Blocked arteries are visible on a live X-ray screen. A tiny balloon on the catheter can be inflated to compress cholesterol plaque in the blocked arteries. Placing metal stents helps to keep open blocked arteries.
  • Bypass surgery: Surgeons harvest a healthy blood vessel from the leg or chest. They use the healthy vessel to bypass blocked arteries.

These procedures involve a risk of complications. They are usually saved for people with significant symptoms or limitations caused by the cholesterol plaques of atherosclerosis.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on July 14, 2014
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Congratulations! Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal.

Congratulations! Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is borderline high. If your LDL goes higher, your total cholesterol level could become Borderline High. Consider reducing the amount of foods you eat with saturated fats and increasing physical activity. If you get more exercise, your level of "good" HDL cholesterol may increase, which could also help to keep your levels of LDL and total cholesterol in check.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High. This may mean that your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, is too low. It is best to have a high level of "good" HDL and a low level of "bad" LDL. The HDL helps keep your LDL level in check. Ask your doctor for your HDL level. If your HDL is low, increasing your physical activity can increase it, which may help reduce your LDL level.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. This may mean that your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, is too low. It is best to have a high level of "good" HDL and a low level of "bad" LDL because the HDL helps keep your LDL level in check. Ask your doctor for your HDL level. If your HDL is low, increasing your physical activity can increase it, which may help reduce your LDL level.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High, but fortunately your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have other non-measured increases in LDL-like particles that can increase heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High, but fortunately your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have other non-measured increases in LDL-like particles that can increase heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Borderline High, too. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. But your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol is High, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have elevated secondary lipids, such as non-HDL particles that increase the risk of heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol is High, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have elevated secondary lipids, such as non-HDL particles that increase the risk of heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Borderline High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High, too. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels! If you are struggling to bring down your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe medication, such as statins. Following medication, dietary, and exercise instructions should result in improvements.

Your total cholesterol level is High, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels! If you are struggling to bring down your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe statins or other cholesterol-lowering medications.

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