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Summer 2011

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It’s In Your Blood

Connecting Atherosclerosis and Cholesterol with Stroke

By Pam Peters, Managing Editor

Abnormal cholesterol levels such as high LDL cholesterol or low HDL cholesterol are major risk factors for atherosclerosis and stroke.

An unsafe cholesterol level is defined as a total of over 200 mg/dL; LDL levels more than 130 mg/dL; and HDL levels less than 40 mg/dL or any combination of these three levels.

Atherosclerosis is the slow buildup of plaque, including fatty deposits and other cells in the artery walls. The plaques can cause blood to stop flowing to vital organs such as the brain. In the brain, stopped blood flow can cause a transient ischemic attack (TIA or mini stroke) or a full-blown stroke. Atherosclerosis is a silent and usually painless condition that should be stopped early in order to prevent a stroke.

Cholesterol is a soft waxy fat in the body needed to digest fats and produce cell membranes, some hormones and vitamin D. There are two main types of lipoproteins in blood that carry cholesterol—low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). HDL has been found to potentially lower stroke risk and is known as the “good” cholesterol because it carries cholesterol away from the tissues to the liver, where it is filtered out of the body. On the other hand, too much LDL can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries which causes atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis can be stopped with the right treatment so it’s important to be aware of the risks and talk to a healthcare professional about it.

Risk Factors

Some of the risk factors for atherosclerosis include: age, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking and diabetes. People with these risks should be aware that these factors can lead to atherosclerosis and stroke.

Symptoms and Tests

Atherosclerosis causes few symptoms until middle or older age. Doctors typically listen for carotid bruits (a murmur heard over the carotid artery in the neck) during exams for early detection of carotid atherosclerosis. With cholesterol, a blood test is necessary to find out if someone has high levels.

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, all adults ages 20 and older should have their cholesterol checked at least once every five years. This is done with a simple fasting blood test. Cholesterol should be checked more frequently in men older than 45 and women older than 55. People with a family history of high cholesterol should also be checked more often.


People with risk factors for high cholesterol and 
atherosclerosis should take on the following preventive measures to avoid stroke risk.

Exercise: Start an exercise program since regular exercise seems to prevent fatty deposits from clogging arteries. Be sure to check with your healthcare professional before starting an exercise program.

Eat Healthy: Eating foods low in fats and high in fruits and vegetables can help lower cholesterol.

Take Medication: For people who cannot lower their cholesterol through diet and exercise alone, medicine such as statin drugs might be prescribed. Drugs can help reduce the size of plaque particles that can clog or harden the arteries. Ask your doctor about the best cholesterol management method for you.

Stop Smoking: Get support from one of the many smoking cessation programs available in your community and drop the habit for good. 

Pam Peters is Principal Writer and Founder of Words Abound.

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