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Can High Cholesterol Cause a Stroke? Yes, But There’s More to the Story

stroke patient with reading glasses on looking at medication label with his caregiver

Can high cholesterol cause a stroke? Surprisingly, there is no absolute answer to this question.

Generally speaking, yes, high cholesterol is a stroke risk factor in most people; and it’s one of the leading causes of stroke, so it should be taken seriously.

However, not all people are affected the same way. Cholesterol impacts the risk of stroke differently based on a person’s preexisting medical conditions.

To help you take charge of your health, you’re about to discover how high cholesterol affects different people in different ways.

When High Cholesterol Leads to Stroke

Cholesterol seems to have a bad reputation because it’s linked to many health risks, including the risk of stroke. But did you know that you need a certain amount of cholesterol to live?

Cholesterol is a type of fat that’s found in all of the cells in your body. Some cholesterol is necessary to carry out specific functions in the body, like producing vitamin D.

However, consuming excessive cholesterol can lead to plaque buildup in your arteries. This makes it more difficult for blood to flow freely and increases your risk of ischemic stroke. That’s the type of stroke caused by a clogged artery in the brain due to a blood clot.

For this reason, it’s imperative to manage high cholesterol to help prevent stroke.

However, not all cholesterol is bad! Here’s an important distinction:

Understanding Cholesterol & Stroke Risk

illustration of HDL cholesterol with halo to signify good and LDL cholesterol with devil horns to signify evil

There are two different types of cholesterol — HDL and LDL — and they both affect your risk of stroke in different ways.

Here are the main differences you should know:

  • LDL cholesterol is the ‘bad’ cholesterol that, when consumed in excess, can build up on the walls of your arteries. If left unmanaged, it can progress into a condition called atherosclerosis, which is a stroke risk factor.
  • HDL cholesterol, on the other hand, is the ‘good’ cholesterol. It acts as a healthy scavenger by carrying bad LDL away from the bloodstream and into the liver where it’s broken down.

Having high LDL cholesterol is known to contribute to stroke. Fortunately, by reducing LDL and increasing HDL cholesterol, you can manage this risk factor and help prevent stroke.

Ischemic Stroke Risk Increases with High Cholesterol

High cholesterol can lead to plaque buildup on the arterial walls, which restricts blood from flowing freely. This increases your risk of ischemic stroke, the type of stroke caused by a clogged artery in the brain.

When a blood clot travels to the brain and becomes stuck in an artery — often due to excess plaque buildup — it can cause a stroke. By managing high cholesterol, you can keep your arteries clear and blood flowing freely. This will help reduce your risk of ischemic stroke.

But there’s another type of stroke to consider…

Hemorrhagic Stroke Risk May Decrease with High Cholesterol

The second type of stroke is called hemorrhagic stroke, where an artery bursts in the brain.

Surprisingly, high cholesterol actually helps reduce the risk of hemorrhagic stroke, according to the Honolulu Heart Study.

The study found a positive correlation between high cholesterol and ischemic stroke (i.e. the higher the cholesterol level, the higher the risk) and an inverse correlation with hemorrhagic stroke (i.e. the higher the cholesterol, the lower the risk).

This does not mean that you should try to increase your cholesterol to prevent a hemorrhagic stroke. You should talk to your doctor to see what your unique risk factors are, and manage those.

Do not fight one risk factor with another. Instead, take steps to reduce all manageable medical conditions, including high cholesterol.

Tips for Managing High Cholesterol in Stroke Patients

All individuals with high cholesterol should take action to manage this stroke risk factor. Even if your preexisting medical conditions don’t make you an at-risk patient, high cholesterol should still be managed.

Here are some steps you can take to manage high cholesterol:

1. Help Manage High Cholesterol with Medication

orange prescription bottle with white pills falling onto table to help treat high cholesterol

Doctors may prescribe a medication called statins to help manage high cholesterol and stroke risk. Statins help lower LDL cholesterol, which is the ‘bad’ cholesterol that increases risk of stroke.

If your doctor prescribes this medication, it’s important to take it as it could save a life.

2. Fight ‘Bad’ Cholesterol with Fiber

To lower LDL levels, try eating more fiber-rich foods like beans, oats, fruits, and vegetables. Foods rich in soluble fiber have been proven to effectively lower cholesterol.

If you don’t have time to pack yourself some fiber-rich, stroke-preventing foods, then you can try adding some psyllium fiber (commonly known as Metamucil) to your diet. Try mixing it into a fruit smoothie for a double boost.

3. Avoid These Unhealthy Foods

Another highly effective way to lower LDL cholesterol levels is to limit your intake of saturated fats like butter, fatty red meat, and palm oil.

Also, keep an eye out for the ingredient ‘partially hydrogenated fat’ on your food labels because it’s code for a nasty, artery-clogging trans fat that you want to avoid completely.

While these steps will help you lower your LDL cholesterol, it’s only half the battle.

4. Get Adequate Exercise to Boost HDL

stroke patient outdoors with sweaty shirt on listening to music after a run

To keep those arteries clear, boosting HDL levels is a must. Exercise is an excellent way to boost HDL and help slow down or stop fatty deposits from clogging your arteries. Furthermore, exercise helps you maintain a healthy weight, which helps reduce your risk of stroke, too.

Summary: Manage High Cholesterol to Reduce Your Risk of Stroke

Overall, high cholesterol is one of the leading causes of stroke and it should be managed appropriately. High cholesterol increases plaque buildup in the arteries, which can cause a blood clot to become clogged in the brain (an ischemic stroke).

Ironically, high cholesterol might reduce risk of hemorrhagic stroke, but this should never be encouraged. Instead of fighting one risk factor with another, it’s much safer (and healthier) to manage all preexisting medical conditions.

Talk to your doctor to see if you need medication to help manage your cholesterol, or what dietary changes are safe for you to make.

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