Last updated: Jun 24, 2008
His Heart Almost Stopped
"I almost didn't wake up" Watch video
Not all cholesterol is created equal. It's a fatty substance, so cholesterol can't dissolve in the blood to be carried to where it's needed in the body. "Your body is mostly water, and fat and water don't mix," says Dr. Dehmer.
The amount and type of cholesterol in your blood are determined by genetics, age, diet, and exercise. When you eat a diet that's rich in saturated and trans fats, or dietary cholesterol (which is found in animal products such as eggs, milk, and meat), LDL cholesterol levels go up.
If LDL cholesterol is too high, some is absorbed into the artery walls, where it acts like an irritant that triggers inflammation in the body. White blood cells crawl into the artery wall and start "gobbling up fatty particles" in a fruitless effort to heal the damage, says Dr. Dehmer.
If you want to see what cholesterol looks like, go get yourself a can of Crisco at the grocery store.This process can happen all over your body. If the fatty buildup is in the blood vessels in the legs (a condition known as peripheral arterial disease), you may experience cramping and have difficulty walking; if it's in the penis, you can develop erectile dysfunction; and if it's in the neck arteries, it can cut off the blood supply to the brain and cause a stroke.
—Gregory Dehmer, MD, Cardiologist
What you can do about bad cholesterol
The artery-clogging process can start early in life. A 2008 autopsy study of adults ages 16 to 64 who died of non-heart-disease-related causes found that 83% had signs of heart disease and 8% had advanced disease. "We're seeing evidence of abnormality of blood vessels and obvious plaque in teenagers," says Dr. Nicholls.