Cholesterol has long been seen as the key culprit in cardiovascular disease. But nearly half of all heart attacks occur in people with normal cholesterol levels, which suggests that another factor is at work.
Researchers have identified cholesterol’s partner in crime as inflammation — the flood of white blood cells and chemicals that our immune system unleashes to ward off damage or infection.
Cholesterol wouldn’t be nearly as dangerous without this process, which is thought to play an essential role in atherosclerosis, the hardening that occurs when low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as bad cholesterol, builds up in the arteries.
When high levels of cholesterol occur in the bloodstream, excess LDL begins to seep into the inner wall of the artery. This triggers an inflammatory response, which actually speeds up the accumulation of cholesterol in the artery wall. This in turn produces more inflammation — and on and on. Eventually the deposited cholesterol hardens into a plaque, which can rupture and lead to the blood clots that cause heart attacks and strokes — an event that inflammation also appears to help along.Health.com: 7 causes of high cholesterol
Some experts now believe that inflammation is the link between the many diseases and conditions that affect the heart and brain.
“Inflammation is the common denominator in nearly all of the diseases we deal with,” says James O’Keefe, MD, director of preventive cardiology at the Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri. “Heart disease, diabetes, dementia — they’re all tied to inappropriate, low-grade, chronic inflammation.”
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