Cholesterol, Part One: A Patient Guide

By Barbara A. Laurencio


Arteriosclerosis causes heart attacks, strokes, amputations and even loss of brain function in addition to sudden death. Arteriosclerotic plaque, the material that eventually clogs our blood vessels begins to form in youth.  American soldiers killed at the age of 19 or 20, in action, have been noted to have streaks of such plaque.  The plaque is made up in part of cholesterol. Excess cholesterol in the blood leads to more plaque being deposited at a younger age. For this reason we prefer to delay this from occurring. But why do we need cholesterol at all? Actually, we wouldn’t survive without any cholesterol, but we often would live longer if the level were lower.

Each year, more than 1 million Americans will suffer a heart attack and about 500,000 will die from heart disease. High blood cholesterol just like high blood pressure does not cause any symptoms. Many people (more than 50 percent by recent estimates) are either inadequately treated or unaware that their cholesterol level is too high. Considering that more than million estimated American adults have high cholesterol, the failure to appreciate high cholesterol’s importance places many people at unnecessary risk for developing future heart disease.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that is naturally found in all parts of our bodies. It is present in the walls and membranes of every cell, including cells in the brain, nerves, muscle, skin, liver, intestines, and heart. Without cholesterol, our bodies could not function properly. It acts as the backbone of hormones like estrogen and testosterone, vitamin D, and bile acids that help us to digest fat.

Cholesterol in the body comes from two major sources. The first is from the liver, which is the body’s major cholesterol-producing organ. We also consume foods that contain cholesterol – red meat, poultry and eggs have particularly high levels. Because the liver is usually able to make enough cholesterol to satisfy all of our bodily needs, however, too much dietary cholesterol can lead to high bodily levels of cholesterol. (Some liver or endocrine disorders also lead to excess cholesterol levels.)

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