By: J. Orson Smith, MD, FACC and Nancy T. Smith, RD, CDE, CLS Tallahassee Memorial Lipid Center
Most people know that high cholesterol is bad for the heart, but few realize that increased cholesterol is also bad for the brain. In fact, blocked arteries caused by plaque buildup are the leading cause of death in the U.S., because they can cause both heart attack and stroke.
A stroke occurs when an artery carrying nutrients to the brain either bursts or is blocked. Plaque build-up in your arteries due to high cholesterol can break off into your blood stream and make its way up to the brain. If it becomes stuck and blocks blood flow to the brain, stroke will occur.
Blockage from plaque can also cause attacks in the brain called “transient ischemic attacks (TIAs)” or what some commonly call “mini strokes.” A TIA has symptoms similar to those of a stroke, but the condition is temporary and does not cause permanent brain damage. However, having a TIA is still considered a medical emergency, because it indicates a strong likelihood stroke will occur in the future.
As with many of the risk factors for heart attack and stroke, prevention is the best form of treatment. Cholesterol is considered a controllable risk factor, as an individual has the ability to maintain a healthy cholesterol level.
It is essential to take proper precautions to ensure your HDL (good cholesterol) levels remain high and your LDL (bad cholesterol) levels remain low. High levels of HDL help in lowering the risk of potential stroke, while LDL is what causes plaque build-up. Diet, weight, and exercise are all aspects that can be controlled by an individual when trying to improve their cholesterol levels.
We recommend the following to our patients:
- Don’t smoke. Smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your heart, and stopping can increase your HDL cholesterol by up to 10 percent.
- Limit your sodium intake. No more than 1500 mg sodium daily is recommended for people with diabetes, high blood pressure and everyone over the age of 50. Cutting back on sodium-laden foods like pizza, canned goods, lunch meats and fast food will help.
- Choose healthy fats. Eat more vegetables and fruits while you cut back on sweets, chips, butter, red meat and cheese, because these foods normally contain high levels of saturated and trans fats that can raise your LDL cholesterol. Nuts, olive oil, avocados, fish and other foods containing omega-3 fatty acids are better options when eaten in moderation.
- Exercise regularly. Frequent aerobic exercise can increase your HDL cholesterol. Regular exercise also appears to slow down or prevent fatty deposits from clogging arteries. You should exercise at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week. If you have heart disease, consult your doctor before starting new exercise programs.
If you are unable to control your cholesterol through diet and exercise, your doctor may recommend medicine to help achieve and maintain healthy levels. Take all medications as prescribed, unless your physician advises you to stop.
To learn more about preventing strokes and why cholesterol maintenance is important, visit www.strokeassociation.org.