October 22, 2014
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Cholesterol

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Your Blood Vessels: Healthy for Life

How high cholesterol affects your blood vessels

How high cholesterol affects your blood vessels

According to Dr. Stephen Fort, Staff Cardiologist and Director of the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory at Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre and Associate Professor of Medicine at Dalhousie University, high cholesterol is a risk factor for "furring up" of the blood vessels. Just as a water pipe can get clogged up by mineral deposits from hard water, your blood vessels can become narrowed and blocked due to high cholesterol.

High cholesterol levels in the bloodstream injure the healthy blood vessel lining and cause inflammation. This injury also results in other cells moving into the walls of the blood vessels causing further accumulation of cholesterol. These changes lead to the formation of a plaque, a build-up of cholesterol and fatty material on the blood vessel walls. Over time, plaques may increase in size and number, and the blood vessels can develop scar tissue.

As the plaques become larger, they start to close off the blood vessels, which limits the oxygen supply to the brain, heart, and limbs. This can cause symptoms such as angina (chest pain) and poor circulation in the limbs. The plaques can also develop ulcers, causing them to rupture.

In response to the damaged plaque, the body forms a blood clot, which can cause a sudden complete blockage in the blood vessel and lead to a heart attack, if it occurs in an artery supplying blood to the heart, or a stroke, if it's an artery supplying blood to the brain. A part of the blood clot can also break off and block a blood vessel in some other part of the body. This is known as an embolus.

Over time, high cholesterol can damage the blood vessels, leading to serious complications such as stroke and heart attack. That's why it's so important to understand and manage your cholesterol. To learn more, see "Cholesterol: The lower the better?", "Can the damage be prevented, stopped, or reversed?" and "Healthy blood vessels for life: Playing your part."

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