Cholesterol and cardiovascular disease


Cardiovascular disease relates to your heart and blood vessels - arteries, capillaries and veins. It can refer to a wide range of conditions affecting your cardiovascular system including angina, heart attack, heart failure, stroke and peripheral vascular disease.

Cholesterol and your cardiovascular system

High levels of cholesterol in your blood lead to the build-up of fatty deposits called atheroma within the walls of your arteries. The damage this causes to the soft muscular artery walls is further compounded by high blood pressure - a collective process of hardening and narrowing known as arteriosclerosis, which dramatically increases the risk of blood clots forming and causing a heart attack or stroke.

Two of the most common and dangerous consequences of high cholesterol are coronary artery disease (CAD) and stroke - both caused principally by the process of arteriosclerosis narrowing and hardening artery walls in the heart and brain respectively. Collectively CAD and stroke account for more deaths in the developed world than any other condition or disease.

Coronary artery disease - angina and heart attack

Angina occurs where one or more of the heart's arteries are narrowed enough to limit the supply of oxygen to the heart's own tissues . This causes discomfort, heaviness, tightness, pressure, burning, numbness, aching or tingling in the chest, back, neck, throat, jaw or arms. This pain intensifies as the heart requires more oxygen, (for example during exercise) and tends to lessen and then disappear as you relax again - although advanced angina can even occur at rest.

A heart attack, also known as an MI or myocardial infarction , occurs when one of the arteries supplying blood to the heart's own tissues becomes suddenly blocked by a blood clot causing some of the surrounding tissues to die from oxygen deprivation.

Stroke

There are two types of stroke - one caused by a blocking of an artery and the other caused by the rupturing of an artery leading to bleeding into the brain.

Around 85% of strokes are caused by a blood clot blocking an artery. This type of attack on your brain is known as an ischaemic stroke, referring to the significantly reduced supply of oxygenated blood to the surrounding tissues.

The other 15% of strokes where an artery ruptures are known as haemorrhagic strokes, and often occur due to a weak spot in the artery wall caused by arteriosclerosis.

Improving your cholesterol profile

There are many lifestyle changes you can make to improve your cholesterol profile and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. These steps will also reduce your risk of other major life-threatening conditions such as cancer and diabetes as well as leave you feeling fitter, healthier and more energetic. They're all pretty simple too so just focus on small but sustainable changes and keep them going - you should see improvements in your cholesterol levels within weeks:

  • Eat a healthy diet low in saturated fat, trans fats and cholesterol and high in soluble fibre, with a higher proportion of unsaturated fats and omega fats
  • Keep physically active - half an hour brisk walking each day is all it takes
  • Maintain a healthy weight by keeping your body mass index (BMI) below 25.0 (if you have a particularly muscular physique a maximum BMI of 26 to 27 is acceptable as the body mass index doesn't differentiate between fat and muscle mass). If you're over the age of 60 then maintaining your BMI between 25 and 30 is healthiest.
  • Drinking and smoking - although there is no direct effect on your cholesterol levels, these are both significant risk factors for cardiovascular disease. So if you drink alcohol make sure that you keep within healthy limits - that means no more than 3-4 units per day (21 units per week) for men and 2-3 units per day (14 units per week) for women and if you smoke then seriously consider stopping.