Fat, cholesterol, blood pressure and your heart

Published On: Mar 20 2012 11:16:44 AM EDT   Updated On: Apr 12 2012 11:44:56 AM EDT

By L.L. Woodard, Contributing writer

Understanding how diet, high blood pressure and high cholesterol relate to heart health can help you make healthier lifestyle choices.

Those three seemingly unrelated circumstances can work separately or in tandem to spell trouble for your heart.

High Blood Pressure and Heart Health

High blood pressure that goes undetected or is improperly treated can lead to a host of problems within the body.

Blood pressure measures the force of the blood flowing through your arteries. The higher number, systolic pressure, represents the blood flow during the pumping action of the heart. The lower number, or diastolic pressure, represents the pressure of the blood flow when the heart in between beats.

An elevated blood pressure over time decreases the elasticity of the inner walls of the blood vessels by causing the linings to become thicker and stiff, according to MayoClinic.com. This change is called "hardening of the arteries," or arteriosclerosis.

Because the heart itself also receives its blood supply through the coronary arteries, these vessels are subject to the same process of arteriosclerosis as in the rest of the body. The lumen, or opening of the vessels, are normally small. Add to this the thickening and stiffening that takes places in arteriosclerosis and you have a recipe for an unhealthy heart. When this occurs, a person is diagnosed with coronary artery disease.

Coronary artery disease can result in decreased blood flow, or even blocked blood flow, which is a type of heart attack known as myocardial infarction, where a section of the heart's muscle ceases to receive blood. Decreased blood flow can result in chest pain and an irregular heartbeat.

"People with high blood pressure who have a heart attack are more likely to die of that heart attack than are people who don't have high blood pressure," warns MayoClinic.com.

Continued high blood pressure can also cause the left side of the heart to enlarge because the heart has to work harder to push the needed blood throughout the body. This left-sided heart enlargement, the MayoClinic.com relates, "increases your risk of heart attack, heart failure and sudden cardiac death."

Finally, the strain of pumping blood at such high pressures can cause the heart muscle to weaken and to pump less efficiently. This results in the heart becoming worn out and failing, a condition known as congestive heart failure, according to MayoClinic.com.

The National Institutes of Health advise that, in general, the accepted blood pressure for an adult is around 120 systolic and 80 diastolic.

Fatty Foods And Heart Health

Many of the fats in the foods that are typical of the American diet contribute to a higher cholesterol level, according to the American Heart Association. The fats responsible for raising cholesterol levels are saturated fats, trans fats and dietary fats.

MayoClinic.com explains that fat eaten in the diet enters the bloodstream, passes through damaged cells and collects on the inner walls of the blood vessels in a condition called atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis can occur throughout the body, blocking blood flow to one or more organs, including the brain and the heart. According to MayoClinic.com, this damage can cause chest pain, heart attack and heart failure.

Picture the vessels of the body as tubes. What once was a clear channel for the flow of blood has become stiffened and the inside diameter, or lumen, of the tube has decreased. If these tubes were pipes in the house, a reasonable person would know to call a plumber right away; in the body, these are silent processes that often give little warning.

High Cholesterol

The American Heart Association defines cholesterol as "a soft, fat-like, waxy substance found in the bloodstream and all your body's cells." The function of cholesterol in a healthy body is to help "produce cell membranes and some hormones and serves other needed bodily functions."

Problems occur when the levels of cholesterol within the body become too high; it is then that the high cholesterol level becomes "a major risk," as the AHA states, of coronary heart disease.

According to MayoClinic.com, cholesterol is a contributing factor in the fatty deposits collecting within the blood vessels, which can be a precursor to heart attack and heart failure.

Cholesterol comes from two sources: food and the body. The AHA explains that the liver and other body cells are responsible for making 75 percent of the total cholesterol in the body, while the other 25 percent comes from food.

LDL cholesterol is commonly referred to as the "bad" cholesterol. When too much of it is circulating in the blood, it can cause atherosclerosis. LDL cholesterol is manufactured naturally by the body, but due to genetics, some people produce excess amounts of it. Eating saturated fats, trans fats and dietary fats can increase the LDL cholesterol levels, too. If a person has inherited this tendency to produce additional LDL cholesterol, lifestyle modifications might not be enough to offset the increased risks.

The American Heart Association recommends that every person over the age of 20 should have a fasting lipoprotein profile done every five years.

Healthy LDL cholesterol readings are from less than 100mgm/dL to 129mgm/dL.

But knowing whether you have a cholesterol or triglyceride reading that requires treatment is about more than knowing about a single level, such as the LDL cholesterol. Your physician understands this, which is why a lipoprotein profile, which measures cholesterols and triglycerides, is the recommended blood test.

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