Atherosclerosis – What Is It?
The arteries throughout the body harden, leading to blockages and narrowing of the arteries. The process happens gradually and disrupts blood flow, causing heart disease.
What Causes Atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis is not caused by a single factor but occurs over time as the lining of the arteries, called endothelium, becomes damaged. Cholesterol, known as LDL, fat and calcium become caught where damage has occurred, creating a buildup of plaque. Overtime, this buildup hardens and can obstruct the artery and limit blood flow. Risk is increased most dramatically by smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
Problems Associated with Atherosclerosis
The plaque buildup and narrowing arteries may be responsible for causing the following types of cardiovascular disease:
- Coronary artery disease: Known as a heart attack or myocardial infarction, the plaque ruptures and causes blood clotting. Part or all of the heart muscle can die from a lack of oxygen. Before rupturing, the plaque is usually stable and may cause chest pain on exertion, known as angina.
- Peripheral artery disease (PAD): Arteries in the brain that experience a rupture result in a stroke, which may lead to permanent brain damage. A temporary blockage can indicate the warning signs of stroke by causing transient ischemic attacks (TIAs). TIAs do not cause brain injury.
- Cerebrovascular disease: When the arteries in the leg become narrow, poor circulation occurs. This causes pain when walking, issues with the healing of wounds and, in severe cases, may require amputation of the affected limb.
Symptoms of Atherosclerosis
Symptoms are not usually noticeable until middle or old age, but once the blockage is severe and obstructs blood flow, the patient may experience pain. The most common symptom is pain on exertion, usually occurring in the chest or legs. The blockage may also rupture without any symptoms or warning signs. This can cause blood to clot within the artery, which can lead to a stroke if the clot reaches the brain, or a heart attack if the clot reaches the heart.
How to Prevent Atherosclerosis
Controlling some risk factors, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and maintaining a level of physical activity can help reduce the odds of developing atherosclerosis. Here is a full list of common risk factors that can be managed by making lifestyle changes:
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Abdominal obesity
- Diet that is lacking sufficient intake of fruits and vegetables
- High alcohol intake (excess of one drink per day for women, and one or two drinks per day for men)
- Physical inactivity
Some factors cannot be controlled, such as family history and age. Most treatment options will prioritize lifestyle changes in order to prevent further narrowing of the arteries. Medicine may also be prescribed and medical procedures may be performed to help treat the condition.
If you have a family history of heart disease or are seeking preventative care, the Vascular Experts can help. Offering fast, friendly and accurate diagnostic testing, preventative care and treatment, our team can help you live a long and healthy life. Heart disease is a common health problem, but it can be managed by taking the right steps and seeking the proper care.