Insight Neurosurgery – Each year, more than 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke. With an estimated one in four adults over the age of 25 likely to have one in their lifetime, stroke has now reached epidemic proportions. Although strokes are commonly associated with old age, everyone is at risk – especially adults with high blood pressure, obesity, addiction to smoking, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Today, one in three Americans has at least one of these conditions or habits.
Since September is National Cholesterol Education Month – an annual celebration dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of understanding cholesterol and how it affects our health – this is a great opportunity to explore the link between cholesterol and strokes. From understanding the types of stroke you could experience and what cholesterol numbers mean to how simple lifestyle changes can make a significant impact in lowering your likelihood of experiencing disability or even death from a stroke, education is the first step in making meaningful change.
What is Cholesterol?
Simply put, cholesterol is a waxy fatty substance found in the cells of our body. The body makes its own cholesterol, but it is also found in many foods, such as meats and cheeses. There is a common misconception that all cholesterol is bad, but the body needs some cholesterol to produce hormones, absorb vitamins, and digest food. Unfortunately, when the body has excess cholesterol in the blood, it can form a buildup of plaque in the walls of your arteries, narrowing or blocking blood flow to the brain.
Types of Cholesterol
The cholesterol in your blood is made by your liver and consists of lipoproteins, which are particles made of protein and fats (lipids). The lipids need to attach to the proteins in order to move through the blood. There are three types of lipoproteins and they each play a different role in the makeup of our cholesterol.
- High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL): HDL is often referred to as “good” cholesterol because it is responsible for transporting cholesterol from throughout the body to the liver. The liver then removes the cholesterol from the body.
- Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL): Conversely, LDL is known as “bad” cholesterol because it turns into plaque that builds up in the arteries.
- Very Low-Density Lipoprotein (VLDL): VLDL is also considered a “bad” cholesterol because it also plays a role in the buildup of plaque in the arteries. Unlike LDL, VLDL carries triglycerides, which are a type of fat in the blood that is produced from excess calories.
Types of Stroke
A stroke is a medical emergency that occurs when the brain is unable to receive enough blood supply (oxygen) in order to function properly. Without oxygen, brain cells start to die in just three to four minutes. There are two primary types of stroke:
- Ischemic Stroke: This type of stroke occurs when a vessel supplying blood to the brain is obstructed. Ischemic stroke is the most common variety, accounting for as many as 87% of all strokes.
- Hemorrhagic Stroke: This type of stroke is caused by a weakened vessel that ruptures and bleeds around the brain. The accumulation of blood puts pressure on the brain tissue and damages brain cells. This variety is less common, accounting for only 13% of strokes.
If you have high cholesterol, you are much more likely to experience an ischemic stroke. This is because high cholesterol is a major contributor to plaque buildup in the arteries. Over time, plaque buildup can narrow blood flow or even completely block blood flow, cutting off the critical nutrients the brain needs to survive.
Understanding Your Cholesterol Levels
In order to understand your cholesterol levels and risk for health conditions such as a stroke, you must undergo a cholesterol test (lipid panel). This is often part of your annual physical exam and only requires a small amount of blood taken from a vein in your arm that is analyzed in a lab. The following are optimal cholesterol levels, according to the CDC.
- Total Cholesterol: About 150 mg/dL
- LDL (“Bad” Cholesterol: About 100 mg/dL
- HDL (“Good” Cholesterol: Greater than or equal to 40 mg/dL in men and 50 mg/dL in women
- Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL
It is recommended that most healthy adults undergo cholesterol screenings every four to six years. However, individuals with heart disease, diabetes, or family history of high cholesterol may require more frequent screenings.
Can Lowering Cholesterol Reduce Your Stroke Risk?
If you find yourself struggling with elevated cholesterol levels, the prospect for stroke and other health concerns may seem discouraging. Fortunately, it is never too late to start lowering your cholesterol through healthy lifestyle changes. Limiting foods high in saturated and trans fats, such as red meat and fried foods, is one of the easiest changes you can make. Instead, introduce more fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and soluble fibers like whole grains or beans into your diet. Regular exercise is also key to lowering cholesterol levels. Even 10-20 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity, such as walking or riding a bike, should result in noticeable improvement.
If lifestyle changes alone are not enough to bring your cholesterol to healthy levels, there are many safe and effective cholesterol-lowering options your physician may recommend, including supplements and prescription medications such as statins. However, it is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle, diet, and exercise while taking medications to keep your cholesterol levels within normal range.
What to Do If You’re Experiencing a Stroke
When it comes to strokes, every second matters! If you or a loved one are experiencing sudden numbness in the face, arm, or leg – especially on one side of the body; confusion or trouble speaking; difficulty standing or walking; or a severe headache, call 911 immediately. Anyone diagnosed with a stroke or experiencing stroke-like symptoms should be evaluated by an experienced neurosurgeon immediately.
One of the best ways to recognize National Cholesterol Education Month is to know your cholesterol levels and what you can do to prevent a stroke. The American Heart Association’s My Cholesterol Guide is an excellent resource with information on getting tested, managing cholesterol, eating healthy, and much more. Your primary care physician can also answer questions and help you manage elevated cholesterol levels.
Our specialists at Insight Neurosurgery are trained in diagnosing, treating, and managing a wide range of brain conditions, including stroke. For more information on our services, stroke prevention, post-stroke care, and treatments, contact us today at (810) 275-9333.