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This is What Cholesterol Does to Your Body

Learn five harmful ways high cholesterol can affect your body.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Cholesterol is a waxy substance in your blood that helps build healthy cells, but too much is dangerous. Anything about 200 mg/dL or higher is considered a health risk and although high cholesterol is known as a "silent killer" because there's often no signs and the common condition can lead to serious issues like stroke or heart disease, you can prevent it. Getting a routine blood test to check your cholesterol is always advisable and lifestyle choices like not smoking, exercising 150 minutes a week and eating a healthy diet helps maintain a normal level. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with Sean Marchese, MS, RN, a registered nurse at The Mesothelioma Center with a background in oncology clinical trials and over 20 years of direct patient care experience who shares what cholesterol can do to your body. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Creates Arterial Plaque

woman consulting with her female doctor

Marchese explains, "One of the most dangerous facets of cholesterol is atherosclerosis, the build-up of plaque in arteries. The most dangerous place this can occur is the coronary artery, which delivers oxygen to the heart tissue. This condition, known as coronary artery disease, is the number one cause of death in the U.S." 


Leads to Heart Attack

Adult male with heart attack or heart burn

Marchese tells us, "High cholesterol damages arteries by creating plaque that prohibits blood flow and restricts oxygen delivery. When this occurs in the coronary arteries that feed the heart, the heart becomes weaker and no longer pumps blood efficiently. Chest pain is the earliest sign of a heart attack signaled by heart tissue decaying from a lack of oxygen." 



man hold his had and suffering from headache, pain, migraine

"In addition to heart attack, atherosclerosis reduces the ability of the heart to pump blood through the body," Marchese says. "This makes it easier for blood to clot either in distant veins or within the heart itself. Clots can travel to the lungs and form a pulmonary embolism, signaled by shortness of breath or cough, that restricts oxygen to the body and can be fatal. A clot that travels to the brain will limit blood to vital brain tissue and cause an ischemic stroke, leading to permanent loss of function or death if not treated immediately." 



high blood pressure

According to Marchese, "High cholesterol can also cause high blood pressure. As plaque accumulates in the arteries, they become stiff and narrow, and blood flow is restricted. Your heart must work harder to move blood through the body. This extra effort increases the pressure within arteries and can weaken blood vessel walls over time." 


Fluid Retention

Swollen feet

Marchese shares, "Chronic high cholesterol levels damage blood vessels throughout the body and can lead to peripheral artery disease. This condition makes it more difficult for your body to move blood through your arms or legs. Peripheral artery disease can create cramping throughout the affected limb, which may resolve as you stand or walk around. A classic sign of PAD is fluid retention or edema as it becomes more difficult for peripheral veins to clear fluid and blood out of the legs. PAD can also lead to deep vein thrombosis, a type of clot that often leads to pulmonary embolism or stroke." 

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather