High cholesterol levels don’t announce themselves and that’s what makes this condition very dangerous. It may be noticed on a routine blood test or when its serious complications develop.
Cholesterol is transported in the blood in combination with proteins and this combination is called Lipoprotein.
As long as blood cholesterol levels are within normal limits, cholesterol causes no harm. It is when the blood cholesterol levels rise due to a host of reasons and left untreated, that it can cause dangerous complications. The type of cholesterol we refer to here is LDL, the bad cholesterol.
As is little known, besides adults and the elderly, high cholesterol ca affect even young people. The American Heart Asociation advises that blood test for cholesterol should begin at the age of 20 years and earlier in children if the child has high risks.
And it is the LDL (Low-Density Lipoprotein) type of cholesterol combination that can cause serious harm. LDL transports the cholesterol through blood from the liver to the different parts of the body for uptake by the cells of various tissues.
High cholesterol complications
Cholesterol is a waxy substance in nature. High levels cause this waxy cholesterol to get stuck or deposited on the arterial walls. These deposits are called plaques.
These plaques formed due to excess cholesterol in the blood cause serious complications, which can be fatal if not treated promptly.
The risk of these complications is increased if you have accompanying diabetes or hypertension.
To worsen things, all three health conditions, hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol do not announce their presence – they are without symptoms.
When this goes on over a period of time, the lumen of the artery goes on narrowing. Certain arteries which are relatively narrow, like the coronary arteries of the heart, get blocked early and blood supply to the heart muscle is curtailed. When this happens, you are at a great risk of heart disease.
- Angina is chest discomfort or pain that occurs because an area of your heart muscle doesn’t get enough oxygen and blood. It feels like a pressure or squeezing pain. It can radiate to the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back. It can be a warning sign of a heart attack.
- Coronary artery disease or ischemic heart disease is the most common heart problem and the number one cause of death in the United States and worldwide. It occurs due to the blockage of a heart artery by a cholesterol plaque causing loss of blood supply to part of the heart muscle. Over time, it can cause a heart attack and if left untreated, it can lead to heart failure.
- Heart attack or myocardial infarction is usually indicated by severe chest pain either retrosternal (behind the breast bone) or just to the left of it. It is due to an embolus (dislodged plaque) from somewhere else and lodged in one of the coronary arteries. The embolus blocks one of the coronary arteries and stops the blood supply to part of the heart muscle.
The etiology of stroke is similar to that of a heart attack, only it happens in the brain. The plaque formed on the walls of the arteries due to excess cholesterol in the blood breaks and a clot forms, which can get lodged in one of the arteries of the brain. Due to loss of blood supply, the brain cells in the concerned area of the brain begin to die. Symptoms include sudden weakness, paralysis or impaired speech and vision. Prompt treatment is essential or the damage can become irreversible.
Other complications due to embolism
At times, the plaque gets ruptured and flows freely in the blood as what is called a clot or a thrombus. This traveling clot or thrombus or more commonly embolus may get lodged anywhere and present complications pertaining to the site where it is lodged. Such a condition is called thrombosis.
- Pulmonary embolism. The embolus may get lodged in the lungs and can cause pulmonary embolism. This almost always results in death.
- Peripheral vascular disease. The embolus may get lodged in the lower extremities when it causes pain, swelling and redness of the legs. Loss of blood supply to part of the lower limbs can lead to infection and even gangrene.
Another complication of high cholesterol levels in the blood is the formation of gallstones. High cholesterol in the bile causes cholesterol gallstones in the gallbladder. Most of the gallstones, about 80%, are cholesterol stones.
These stones can block the biliary duct and cause improper emptying of the gall bladder. Another cause of improper emptying of the gall bladder is high triglyceride levels, which often accompany high LDL levels.
Improper emptying of the gall bladder can further add to more stone formation.
Intestinal ischemic syndrome
A build up of a cholesterol plaque in the arteries supplying the stomach or the intestines can block blood supply and lead to the intestinal ischemic syndrome. Symptoms include pain in the abdomen, nausea, vomiting, and bloody stools.
Reduced kidney function
Results of a study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston reported in the August 2003 issue of the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, indicate that otherwise healthy individuals with low HDL and high LDL and triglyceride levels incur twice the risk if reduced kidney function.
This is an alarming finding because reduced kidney function can lead to kidney failure. Secondly, kidney disease is a high-risk factor for malnutrition, anemia, high blood pressure, seizures, and a host of other metabolic disorders.