As cholesterol (plaque) builds up in the arteries, the arteries begin to narrow, which lessens or blocks the flow of blood.
Blood cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made by your liver. Blood cholesterol is essential for good health. Your body needs it to perform important jobs, such as making hormones and digesting fatty foods.
Your body makes all the blood cholesterol it needs, which is why experts recommend that people eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible while on a healthy eating plan.
Dietary cholesterol is found in animal foods, including meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. Learn more about preventing high cholesterol by making healthy eating choices.
Strong evidence shows that eating patterns that include less dietary cholesterol are associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, but your overall risk depends on many factors.
Certain health conditions, your lifestyle, and your family history can raise your risk for high cholesterol. These are called “risk factors.”
You can’t control some of these risk factors, such as your age or your family history. But you can take steps to lower your risk for high cholesterol by changing things you can control.
High cholesterol can run in families. If you have a family history of high cholesterol, you are more likely to have high cholesterol.
Factors that can increase your risk of bad cholesterol include:
Poor diet. Eating saturated fat, found in products, and trans fats, found in some commercially baked cookies and crackers and microwave popcorn, can raise your cholesterol level. Foods that are high in cholesterol, such as red meat and full-fat dairy products, will also increase your cholesterol.
Obesity. Having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater puts you at risk of high cholesterol.
Lack of exercise. Exercise helps boost your body’s HDL, or “good,” cholesterol while increasing the size of the particles that make up your LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, which makes it less harmful.
Smoking. Cigarette smoking damages the walls of your blood vessels, making them more prone to accumulate fatty deposits. Smoking might also lower your level of HDL, or “good,” cholesterol.
Age. Because your body’s chemistry changes as you age, your risk of high cholesterol climbs. For instance, as you age, your liver becomes less able to remove LDL cholesterol.
Diabetes. High blood sugar contributes to higher levels of a dangerous cholesterol called very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL) and lower HDL cholesterol. High blood sugar also damages the lining of your arteries.
Development of atherosclerosis
Development of atherosclerosis Open pop-up dialog box
High cholesterol can cause a dangerous accumulation of cholesterol and other deposits on the walls of your arteries (atherosclerosis). These deposits (plaques) can reduce blood flow through your arteries, which can cause complications, such as:
Chest pain. If the arteries that supply your heart with blood (coronary arteries) are affected, you might have chest pain (angina) and other symptoms of coronary artery disease.
Heart attack. If plaques tear or rupture, a blood clot can form at the plaque-rupture site — blocking the flow of blood or breaking free and plugging an artery downstream. If blood flow to part of your heart stops, you’ll have a heart attack.
Stroke. Similar to a heart attack, a stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks blood flow to part of your brain.
The same heart-healthy lifestyle changes that can lower your cholesterol can help prevent you from having high cholesterol in the first place. To help prevent high cholesterol, you can:
Eat a low-salt diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables and whole grains
Limit the amount of animal fats and use good fats in moderation
Lose extra pounds and maintain a healthy weight
Exercise on most days of the week for at least 30 minutes
Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all