While high cholesterol is commonly associated with blockages in the arteries of the heart which can result in a heart attack, high cholesterol can also narrow the brain arteries and lead to a stroke. Studies have shown that people can lower their risk of stroke, a leading cause of death in the United States, by lowering their cholesterol.
Arteries carry blood through our body and too much cholesterol in the blood can cause a build-up of fat in the walls of the arteries. "Just as a heart attack can occur when one of the coronary arteries becomes narrowed and blocked, a stroke or 'brain attack,' can result from the blockage of an artery that supplies oxygen to the brain," explains Danielle Haskins, MD, Medical Director of the Stroke Center at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, a state-designated comprehensive stroke center and Joint Commission certified advanced primary stroke center.
Cholesterol is a type of fat our bodies produce; however, we also absorb it when we eat animal food products such as eggs, meats and dairy products. Because cholesterol does not dissolve in the blood on its own, it must be carried to and from cells by particles called lipoproteins. There are two main types of lipoproteins: low-density lipoproteins (LDL), often called the "bad" cholesterol which causes plaque build-up, and high-density lipoproteins (HDL), or the "good" cholesterol.
"The ratio of good cholesterol to bad cholesterol is the key measurement of your stroke risk. The more HDL you have the lower your risk for stroke. The more LDL that you have, the greater your risk for stroke," explains Dr. Haskins." To monitor your cholesterol, she recommends that those 20 years of age and older have their cholesterol checked at a minimum of every five years and discuss their target LDL number with their physician.
Dr. Haskins adds that while the chances of a stroke jump dramatically with age, the growing number of younger people with worrying risk factors such as bulging waistlines, diabetes and high blood pressure means they are becoming increasingly susceptible. "It is important that people of all ages take measures to address what we call modifiable risk factors by making important lifestyle changes," she explains. To help reduce your risk of high cholesterol and stroke, Dr. Haskins offers the following suggestions:
- Eat healthy – avoid high-fat food and eat a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, fiber lean meats such as chicken and fish, low-fat dairy products and a limited number of egg yolks.
- Maintain a healthy weight - Being overweight or obese increases your risk for stroke.
- Exercise- Physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight and lower your cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
- Do not smoke - Cigarette smoking greatly increases your risk for stroke. If you don't smoke, don't start. If you do smoke, quitting will lower your risk for stroke.
- Limit alcohol use - Avoid drinking too much alcohol, which can raise your blood pressure. Men should have no more than 2 drinks per day, and women only 1.
- Talk to your doctor about any necessary medical treatment that may help control cholesterol levels.