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Cholesterol & Triglycerides Health Center

Cholesterol and Artery Plaque Buildup

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How Cholesterol Plaque Attacks

Once established, cholesterol plaques can behave in different ways.

  • They can stay within the artery wall. The cholesterol plaque may stop growing, or may grow into the wall, out of the path of blood.
  • Plaques can grow in a slow, controlled way into the path of blood flow. Slow-growing cholesterol plaques may or may not ever cause any symptoms -- even with severely blocked arteries.
  • Cholesterol plaques can suddenly rupture -- the worst case scenario. This will allow blood to clot inside an artery. In the heart, this causes a heart attack. In the brain, it causes a stroke.

Cholesterol plaques from atherosclerosis cause the three main kinds of cardiovascular disease:

  • Coronary artery disease -- Stable cholesterol plaques in the heart's arteries can cause no symptoms or can cause chest pain called angina. Sudden cholesterol plaque rupture and clotting causes blocked arteries. When that happens, heart muscle dies. This is a heart attack, also called myocardial infarction.
  • Cerebrovascular disease -- Cholesterol plaque can rupture in one of the brain's arteries. This causes a stroke, leading to permanent brain damage. Blockages can also cause transient ischemic attacks, or TIAs. A TIA has symptoms like those of stroke. But they are temporary and there is no permanent brain damage.  However, patients who experience a TIA are at a much higher risk of a subsequent stroke, so medical attention and care is essential.
  • Peripheral arterial disease -- Blocked arteries in the legs can cause pain on walking and poor wound healing due to poor circulation. Severe disease may lead to amputations.

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.

Is This Normal? Get the Facts Fast!

Is Your Cholesterol Level Heart Healthy?
What is your LDL (low-density lipoprotein) level?

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or
Answer:
Desirable
0-199
Borderline
200-239
High
240+

Your level is currently

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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