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Cholesterol is that most frustrating of health problems: you can’t see it and you can’t feel it, but if it builds up in your arteries, it can cause a great deal of damage. Narrowing blood vessels and weakening walls, it is one of the primary causes of strokes, heart attacks, and sudden death. It receives a great deal of press, and everyone is seemingly always talking about it – and that talk is not always correct.

Cholesterol is an important part of the story of blocked arteries, but it’s not the whole story. Patients sometimes ask, "But I have a normal cholesterol level . . . How can I have blocked arteries?" Blockages develop because of many factors, and cholesterol is but one of several important ones (to include smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, male sex, family history, and others). For more about these, see Coronary Artery Disease. Furthermore, as we learn more about cholesterol, we have realized that the type of cholesterol which circulates is as important or more so than the total amount.

In the animation above, "bad" cholesterol is shown being deposited in the blood vessel walls, while "good" cholesterol takes it away. The amount of cholesterol taken in through the diet, and the activity of the liver and other organs which metabolize fats and cholesterol are very important determinants of how your body handles cholesterol. The animation simplifies the process a great deal, but is a good starting point.

We’ll explain more in the following sections, telling you more about cholesterol, how it behaves in your body in health and disease, and how it can be effectively managed.

ęCOPY;1997 HeartPoint  Updated September 1997

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