Cholesterol Builds Up Risk for Stroke: Read Steve's Story
When you think of cholesterol, it’s easy to associate it with heart disease and risk of a heart attack. Do you know it is also a leading cause of stroke?
“Some people don’t realize that stroke is a cardiovascular disease,” says Joanna Demirjian, NP, RWJ Hamilton’s stroke program coordinator. “A stroke is a ‘brain attack’ that occurs when a clot blocks the flow of blood, cutting off vital oxygen traveling to the brain. That lack of blood and oxygen can kill brain cells that control our movement, thoughts and speech.”
There are many causes of stroke. One of these is the gradual build-up of cholesterol, a soft waxy fat (lipid) that is naturally produced by the body. “A build-up of cholesterol in your arteries increases your risk of stroke,” says T. John Mercuro, MD, a cardiologist specializing in lipid management.
“Because cholesterol doesn’t dissolve into our blood, it is carried through our bloodstream by lipoproteins: low-density lipoproteins, known as LDL or bad cholesterol, and high-density lipoproteins, or HDL,” says Mercuro.
“People with heart disease or those who are at high risk for developing it typically have too much LDL-cholesterol in their blood. One of the things we know about high levels of LDL and triglycerides is that this raises the risk of ischemic stroke caused by clots, making cholesterol a risk factor that need to be managed with your physician.”
Mercuro, who runs RWJ Hamilton’s Lipid Clinic, works with physicians and patients to manage the complexities of cholesterol. Some people may need to treat high cholesterol with medication called statins which help reduce the size of plaque that clogs or hardens arteries.
“Research shows statins also may be effective in reducing the risk of stroke or transient ischemic attack, what people call a TIA or mini-stroke. Of course, there are many other cholesterol-lowering drugs. Selecting the one that works best for you is a critical component of managing lipids.”
At age 50, Steve Ansalmo was diagnosed with heart failure, a condition in which the heart cannon pump enough blood to the body's other organs.
As Steve says, "We don't get to plan everything and I sure was unprepared for this." A few years later he was again caught off guard. "I was at home when I suddenly lost 80 percent of my mobility. My speech was slurred, I wasn't making a whole lot of sense. It was a stroke. Thankfully, my wife and son took me to the emergency department."
Steve's stroke was treated at RWJ Hamilton's stroke unit until he went home after a few days to recover and complete his physical therapy. Fortunately, his stroke did not result in disability.
However, Steve knows people who have already experienced a stroke are more likely to experience an attack than someone who has not. So today, he works with his cardiologist, David Rosvold, MD, to manage his risk factors and prevent a second stroke, including keeping his cholesterol in check. "I have been taking medication to help with the cholesterol, but I also recognize tha I can't just rely on the pill to do the work."
"Ours is a typical Italian household. As long as we have garlic and olive oil, we are OK. I watch my fat intake and we never cook with butter or any of the bad oils. If we fry up something, we do it lightly, in extra virgin olive oil."
"My wife researches how to eat healthy. We eat fish with Omega-3 acids and I work in a green vegetable at least once a day. It's hard because I'm a potato guy. But I manage to vary it up with fruits too. It's important to eat a good amount of fiber and the fruit helps with that."
"When you're in your 50s it's hard to see any of this coming. They can't tell me for sure I won't have another stroke so I change what I can and accept what I cannot."