What is atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis is a toughening and narrowing of the arteries. It can put your blood flow at risk as your arteries get blocked. You may hear it called arteriosclerosis or atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. It is the common cause of heart attacks, strokes, and outlying vascular disease, collectively called cardiovascular disease.
Symptoms of atherosclerosis
Atherosclerosis generally affects older people, but it can begin to develop during adolescence. Inside the artery, streaks of white blood cells will appear on the wall of the artery. Often, there are no symptoms until some plaque breaks down or blood flow is restricted. This can take many years to happen. The symptoms of atherosclerosis are contingent on the arteries affected.
Carotid arteries: The carotid arteries provide blood to the brain. The restricted blood supply can lead to a stroke. Symptoms of a stroke can appear suddenly and include:
- Labored breathing
- Facial numbness
If a being has signs of a stroke, they need instant medical attention.
Coronary arteries: The coronary arteries supply blood to the heart. When the blood supply to the heart decreases, it can cause angina and heart attack. A person can experience:
- Chest pain
- Throwing up
- Extreme anxiety
Renal arteries: The renal arteries supply blood to the kidneys. If the blood supply is reduced, chronic kidney disease can develop. Someone with a renal artery blockage significant enough to cause chronic kidney disease may experience:
- Loss of appetite
- Swelling of the hands and feet
- Difficult to focus
Peripheral arteries: These arteries source blood to the arms, legs, and pelvis. If blood cannot circulate effectively, a person may experience numbness and pain in the extremities. In severe cases, tissue death and infection can occur. Peripheral artery disease also increases the risk of stroke or heart attack.
Causes of atherosclerosis
Plaque buildup and subsequent hardening of the arteries restrict blood flow in the arteries, preventing your organs and tissues from getting the oxygenated blood they need to function.
The following are communal causes of hardening of the arteries:
High cholesterol: Cholesterol is a yellow, waxy substance that occurs naturally in your body and in certain foods you eat. If the cholesterol levels in your blood are too high, it can clog your arteries. It turns into hard plaque that restricts or blocks blood flow to your heart and other organs.
Diet: It is important to eat a healthy diet. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that you follow a general healthy dietary pattern that emphasizes:
- A wide range of fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Low-fat dairy products
- Poultry and fish, skinless
- Nuts and legumes
- Non-tropical vegetable oils, such as olive or sunflower oil.
Some other dietary tips:
- Avoid foods and drinks with added sugar, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, sweets, and desserts. The AHA endorses no more than 6 teaspoons or 100 calories of sugar a day for most women and no more than 9 teaspoons or 150 calories a day for most men.
- Avoid foods that are high in salt. Try not to have more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. Ideally, you would not consume more than 1,500 mg per day.
- Escape foods high in unhealthy fats, like trans fats. Change them with unsaturated fats, which are well for you. If you need to inferior your blood cholesterol, reduce saturated fat to no more than 5 to 6 percent of total calories. For someone who consumes 2,000 calories a day, that’s about 13 grams of saturated fat.
Aging: As you age, your heart and blood containers work harder to pump and receive blood. Your arteries can become weak and less elastic, making them more susceptible to plaque buildup.
Risk factors of atherosclerosis
Hardening of the arteries occurs over time. In addition to aging, factors that increase the risk of atherosclerosis include:
- High cholesterol
- Smoking and other uses of tobacco
- Family history of early heart disease
- Lack of exercise
- An unhealthy diet
Diagnosis of atherosclerosis
A healthcare provider will perform a physical exam and listen to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope. Atherosclerosis can create a hiss or murmur (“murmur”) over an artery. All adults over the age of 18 should have their blood pressure check every year. More frequent measurements may be needed for those with a history of high blood pressure readings or those with risk factors for high blood pressure.
- Cholesterol testing is recommended for all adults. The main national guidelines differ in terms of the suggested age to start the test.
- Screening should begin between the ages of 20 and 35 for men and between 20 and 45 for women.
- It is not necessary to repeat the test for five years for most adults with normal cholesterol levels.
- The test may need to be repeated if there are lifestyle changes, such as a large weight gain or a change in diet.
- More frequent tests are needed for adults with a history of high cholesterol, diabetes, kidney problems, heart disease, stroke, and other conditions.
- Various imaging tests can be used to see how well blood moves through the arteries.
- Doppler tests that use ultrasound or sound waves.
- Magnetic resonance arteriography (MRA), a special type of magnetic resonance imaging
- Special CT scans called CT angiography
- Arteriograms or angiograms use x-rays and contrast material (sometimes called “dye”) to see the path of blood flow within the arteries.
Treatment for atherosclerosis
Treatments for atherosclerosis may include heart-healthy lifestyle changes, medications, and medical procedures or surgery. The goals of treatment include:
- Reduce the risk of blood clots.
- Prevention of diseases related to atherosclerosis
- Reduce risk factors in an effort to slow or stop plaque buildup.
- Relieve symptoms
- Widening or shunting of plaque-clogged arteries
- Heart-healthy lifestyle changes
Your doctor may endorse heart-healthy lifestyle changes if you have atherosclerosis. Heart-healthy lifestyle changes include heart-healthy eating, a goal of a healthy weight, stress management, physical activity, and smoking cessation.
Medicines: Sometimes lifestyle changes alone are not enough to control your cholesterol levels. For example, you may also need statin medications to control or lower your cholesterol. By lowering your blood cholesterol level, you can lower your chances of having a heart attack or stroke. Doctors often prescribe statins to people who have:
- Coronary heart disease, peripheral artery disease, or a previous stroke
- High levels of LDL cholesterol
- Doctors may discuss starting statin treatment with people who are at high risk of developing heart disease or having a stroke.
Your doctor may also prescribe other medications to:
- Lower your blood pressure
- Lower your blood sugar levels
- Prevent blood clots, which can lead to heart attack and stroke.
Prevent inflammation: Take all medications regularly, as prescribed by your doctor. Do not alter the amount of your medicine or skip a dose unless your doctor tells you to. You must still follow a heart-healthy lifestyle, even if you take medicine to treat your atherosclerosis.
Surgery and medical procedures: If you have severe atherosclerosis, your physician may acclaim a medical procedure or surgery.
- Percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), also known as coronary angioplasty, is a procedure used to open blocked or narrowed coronary (heart) arteries. PCI can recover blood flow to the heart and relieve chest pain. Occasionally a small mesh tube called a stent is placed in the artery to keep it open after the procedure.
- Coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) is a type of surgery. In CABG, arteries or veins from other areas of your body are used to bypass or bypass the narrow coronary arteries. CABG can improve blood flow to the heart, relieve chest pain, and possibly prevent a heart attack.
- The bypass graft can also be used for the arteries in the legs. For this surgery, a healthy blood vessel is used to bypass a narrow or blocked artery in one of the legs. The healthy blood vessel redirects blood around the blocked artery, which improves blood flow to the leg.
- Carotid endarterectomy is a type of surgery to eliminate plaque buildup from the carotid arteries in the neck. This procedure reinstates blood flow to the brain, which can help prevent a stroke.
- In some cases, plaque is part of a process that causes the wall of an artery to weaken. This can cause a bulge in an artery called an aneurysm. Aneurysms can rupture (rupture). This causes bleeding that can be life-threatening.
Prevention of atherosclerosis
The same healthy lifestyle variations recommended for treating atherosclerosis also help prevent it. These include:
- Give up smoking
- Eating healthy food
- Exercise regularly
- Keep a healthy weight
Just remember to make the changes step by step and be aware of which lifestyle changes are manageable for you in the long run.