Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Cholesterol & Triglycerides Health Center

Font Size

How High Cholesterol Leads to Atherosclerosis

High cholesterol levels can lead to clogged arteries that come from a  process known as atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. Having the right level of cholesterol helps lower the risk of problems caused by clogged arteries. That includes heart attacks and strokes.

But what makes cholesterol so bad for you? And how does treating high cholesterol help? 

Did You Know?

Under the Affordable Care Act, many health insurance plans will cover preventive care services, including blood pressure and cholesterol screenings, at no cost to you. Learn more. 

Health Insurance Center

 

Cholesterol and Atherosclerosis: The Bad and the Good

Cholesterol is a kind of fat found in your blood. Your liver makes it because cells and certain organs need it. Your body also gets cholesterol from some of the foods you eat. But if your body gets too much, the cholesterol can do serious damage, especially inside your arteries.

Some people think that all cholesterol is “bad.” But there are different kinds of cholesterol, and too much of one kind certainly is bad. But there’s another kind of cholesterol that is “good” because it helps keep your body well.

The "bad" cholesterol is called LDL or low-density lipoprotein. LDL can damage your arteries that carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body. Then once the damage has started, LDL keeps on penetrating and building up in the artery walls.

As the deposits grow, your body tries to clean them up. White blood cells and other kinds of cells that are part of your body’s defense attack the buildup and chew it up. But over time, those cells and the resulting debris become part of the buildup. Over years, the deposits grow larger and form what’s called plaque.

The "good" cholesterol is known as HDL or high-density lipoprotein. HDL circulates through your body, acting like a cholesterol magnet. It gathers up the bad cholesterol and moves it out of your arteries. Eventually, much of the cholesterol is either eliminated from your body, delivered to tissues such as the liver, or used to make hormones.

As plaques grow inside your arteries, they eventually start to block the flow of blood. Some LDL-rich plaques grow in a slow, controlled way. While they may eventually narrow arteries enough to cause symptoms, the body generally adapts. And this type of blockage seldom causes heart attacks.

But other plaques are unstable. The white blood cells and other cells the body sends to consume the plaque also release enzymes. These enzymes dissolve some of the tissue called collagen that holds the plaque together. When that happens, the plaque deposit can rupture. Then the debris from it can cause a blood clot to form inside the artery. Sometimes, within minutes, this clot can cut off the blood that goes to the heart or the brain and cause a heart attack or stroke.

 

Cholesterol Treatment: Down With the Bad, Up With the Good

As your cholesterol level gets higher, so does the likelihood that more plaques will form. The link between cholesterol and life threatening events makes treating high cholesterol a priority. Both medications and changes in lifestyle can improve cholesterol level and reduce the risks that come with atherosclerosis:

  • Exercise with or without weight loss increases "good" HDL cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
  • A diet high in fiber and low in fats can lower "bad" LDL cholesterol.
  • Oily fish and other foods high in omega 3 fatty acids can raise “good” HDL cholesterol. 
  • Statins are the medicines most-often prescribed for high cholesterol. They can dramatically lower "bad" LDL cholesterol, by up to 60% or more. They can also increase HDL.

Studies have shown that statins can reduce the rates of heart attacks, strokes, and death from atherosclerosis. But to be effective, statins need to be part of a larger personalized strategy you and your doctor work out together. Among other things, that strategy will be based on your level of risk for heart attack and stroke as well as your own personal life-style choices.

If you know or think your cholesterol is high, talk to your doctor about ways you can lower it.

 

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on July 02, 2014

Is This Normal? Get the Facts Fast!

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

Get the latest Cholesterol Management newsletter delivered to your inbox!


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.

Start Over

Step:  of 

Today on WebMD

cholesterol lab test report
Article
Compressed heart
Article
 
Compressed heart
Article
chocolate glazed donut and avocado
SLIDESHOW
 
Heart Foods Slideshow
Slideshow
Cholesterol Fact or Fiction
Quiz
 
Food & Fitness Planner
TOOL
Attractive salad
ARTICLE
 
Heart Disease Overview Slideshow
SLIDESHOW
worst sandwich slideshow
SLIDESHOW
 
Fat Foods Fit Foods
SLIDESHOW
Bad Cholesterol
VIDEO
 

WebMD Special Sections