Cholesterol Home > Cholesterol and Heart Disease

When there is too much cholesterol in the blood, it builds up on artery walls. This buildup (known as plaque) can narrow -- and eventually block -- any of the blood vessels in your body, including the arteries that carry blood to the heart. Scientists are not sure why this buildup occurs, but they do know that if you lower your cholesterol, heart disease can often be prevented.

Cholesterol and Heart Disease: An Overview

High cholesterol affects 40 million Americans and is one of the risk factors for developing heart disease. Heart disease is the number one killer of women and men in the United States. Each year, more than a million Americans have heart attacks and about a half-million die from heart disease.

How Are Heart Disease and Cholesterol Related?

High cholesterol levels in the blood do not cause problems over days, weeks, or months. High cholesterol levels cause problems over many years.
If your levels of cholesterol are too high, low density lipoproteins (LDLs) will leave extra cholesterol in the blood. If the high density lipoproteins (HDLs) cannot pick up all of this cholesterol, it will begin to build up on your artery walls, along with other fats and debris. This buildup is called plaque. Over time, plaque can narrow the blood vessels; this buildup may even block your blood vessels completely. Plaque buildup on your blood vessel walls is called atherosclerosis.
Nobody knows why this buildup happens, but a narrowed or blocked blood vessel can prevent blood from getting to where it needs to go. Without blood, tissues will die.
For example, if the blocked vessel is in your brain, it can cause a stroke. Blockages can also happen in the blood vessels that carry blood to the heart muscle, called the coronary arteries. This blockage process is called coronary heart disease, and it may result in a heart attack or angina (chest pain).
Atherosclerosis can affect all of your organ systems; however, the organ most seriously affected by both high cholesterol and atherosclerosis is the heart.
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Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
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