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How High Cholesterol Leads to Atherosclerosis

Abnormal cholesterol levels are associated with clogged arteries as a result of a process called atherosclerosis. having a better cholesterol profile lowers the risk of diseases caused by atherosclerosis, like heart attacks and strokes.

So what makes cholesterol so bad for your arteries? And isn't there a "good" cholesterol? 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, the Good, and the Ugly

In cholesterol and atherosclerosis, there are good guys and bad guys:

"Bad" cholesterol, also called low-density lipoprotein (LDL), has chemical properties that can damage arteries. Damaged areas allow more LDL to penetrate artery walls. The LDL gets stuck and accumulates in the artery's wall.

(Warning: chemistry lesson ahead!) Inside the artery wall, free radicals transform LDL from something bad to something worse: oxidized LDL. The cholesterol chemical spill attracts white blood cells and other cells to try to clean up the mess. The cells chew up and digest oxidized LDL.

Over years, the deposit of "bad" cholesterol, cells, and debris grows larger, and it's called a plaque.

"Good" cholesterol, known as high-density lipoprotein (HDL), is the yin to LDL's yang. HDL is on your side: it circulates through your body, acting like a cholesterol magnet. HDL diverts and delivers cholesterol away from your arteries. Much of the cholesterol is either eliminated from the body, delivered to tissues such as the liver, or used to make hormones.

As cholesterol plaques form and grow inside arteries, they eventually can begin to block off blood flow. Here's where atherosclerosis gets ugly.

The LDL-rich center of the plaque can be stable, meaning it grows in a slow, controlled way. The plaque may eventually cause symptoms, but generally speaking, the body adapts. These blockages seldom cause heart attacks.

But other plaques can be unstable. Remember the cells inside the plaque, digesting all the LDL? As they work, these cells release enzymes that dissolve some of the biological "duct tape" (collagen) holding the plaque together.

Unstable plaques are prone to tearing. If they rupture, they release material that causes a blood clot to form inside the artery. Within minutes, blood flow is cut off. The result: a heart attack or stroke.

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

The link between cholesterol and atherosclerosis led to treatments to improve cholesterol levels. Numerous medications, and changes in lifestyle, can improve cholesterol and reduce 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 reduced fats can lower "bad" LDL cholesterol. Plant-derived stanols used as fat substitutes also help lower cholesterol.

Statins are the most-often prescribed medicines for high cholesterol. Statins can dramatically lower "bad" LDL cholesterol, by up to 60% or more. They can also increase HDL modestly. In studies, statins reduce the rates of heart attacks, strokes, and death from atherosclerosis.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on May 06, 2012

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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