What is atherosclerosis?
As you get older, fats, cholesterol, and calcium can deposit in your arteries and leads to the formation of plaque. The formation of plaque makes it difficult for blood to flow through your arteries. Plaque can may develop in any artery in your body, including your heart, legs, and kidneys.
It can lead to blood and oxygen deprivation in various tissues of your body. Pieces of plaque can also break off, making a blood clot. Atherosclerosis can cause heart attack, stroke, or heart failure if not treated.
Atherosclerosis is a very common issue associated with aging. This condition can be prevented and many successful treatment options are available.
Atherosclerosis is a type of arteriosclerosis, otherwise known as hardening of the arteries. The terms atherosclerosis and arteriosclerosis are sometimes used interchangeably.
What causes atherosclerosis?
Plaque buildup and successive hardening of the arteries restricts blood flow in the arteries, thus prevents your organs and tissues from getting the oxygenated blood they need to work.(2)
The following are common reasons behind hardening of the arteries:
If the levels of cholesterol in your blood are too high, it can obstruct your arteries. It becomes a hard plaque that restricts or obstructs blood flow to your heart and other organs.
- a wide variety of fruits and vegetables
- whole grains
- low-fat dairy products
- poultry and fish, without skin
- nuts and legumes
- non-tropical vegetable oils, like olive or sunflower oil
Some other diet tips:
- Avoid foods and drinks with added sugar, such as high sugar-containing drinks, candy, and desserts.
- The AHA recommends not to exceed more than 6 teaspoons or 100 calories of sugar in a day for most women, and no more than 9 teaspoons or 150 calories a day for men.
- Avoid foods high in salt. Target to have no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. Optimally, you’d consume no more than 1,500 mg a day.
- Avoid foods high in unhealthy fats, such as trans fats. Replace them with unsaturated fats, which are better for you. If you need to reduce your blood cholesterol, reduce saturated fat to no more than 5 to 6 percent of total calories. For someone taking 2,000 calories per day, that’s around 13 grams of saturated fat.
As you become older, your heart and blood vessels work harder to pump and receive blood. Your arteries may weaken and also start loosing its elasticity, which can increase their risk to plaque buildup.
Who’s at risk for atherosclerosis?
Many factors can increase the risk for developing atherosclerosis. Some risk factors can be changed, while others can’t.
If atherosclerosis runs in your family, you may be at risk of developing atherosclerosis. This condition, as well as other heart-associated problems, may be inherited.
Lack of exercise
Regular exercise is benificial for your heart. It keeps your heart muscle strong and enhances oxygen and blood flow throughout your body.
Living a stationary lifestyle increases your risk for developing medical conditions, including heart disease.
High blood pressure
High blood pressure can damage your blood vessels and weakens them some areas. Cholesterol and other substances in your blood may decrease the elasticity of your arteries over time.
Smoking tobacco products can damage your blood vessels and heart.
What are the symptoms of atherosclerosis?
Most symptoms of atherosclerosis are not visible until a blockage occurs. Common symptoms are:
- chest pain or angina
- pain in the areas where arteries are blocked such as in your leg, arms and more
- confusion, which occurs if the blockage affects circulation to your brain
- muscle weakness in your due to lack of circulation
It’s also essential to know the symptoms of heart attack and stroke. Both of these can be caused by atherosclerosis and require urgent medical attention.
The symptoms of a heart attack include:
- chest pain or discomfort
- pain in the shoulders, back, neck, arms
- abdominal pain
- nausea or vomiting
- a sense of something tragic or unusual is about to occur
The symptoms of stroke include:
- weakness or numbness in the face or limbs
- difficulty speaking
- difficulty understanding speech
- vision problems like blurred vision or double vision
- loss of balance and instability
- sudden, severe headache
- Fatigue, lightheadedness,vertigo
Heart attack and stroke are both medical emergencies. Call 911 or your local emergency services and get to a urgent medical attention if you experience symptoms of a heart attack or stroke.
How is atherosclerosis diagnosed?
Your doctor will perform a physical exam if you have symptoms of atherosclerosis. They’ll check for:
- a weakened pulse
- an aneurysm, a bulging out or ballooning of an artery due to weakness of the arterial wall
- delayed wound healing, which indicates a restricted blood flow
A cardiologist may listen to your heart to see if you have any abnormal sounds. They’ll be listening for a whooshing sound, which indicates that an artery is blocked. Your doctor will perform more tests if they think you may have narrowed or hard arteries.
Tests can include:
- a blood test to check your cholesterol levels
- a Doppler ultrasound, which uses sound waves to make an image of the artery that shows if there is a blockage
- an ankle-brachial index (ABI), which checks a blockage in your arms or legs by comparing the blood pressure in each limb
- a magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) or a computed tomography angiography (CTA) to create images of the large arteries in your body
- a cardiac angiogram, which is a type of chest X-ray that is performed after your heart arteries are injected with radioactive dye
- an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), which measures the electrical activity in your heart to find out any areas of reduced blood flow
- a stress test, or exercise tolerance test, which monitors your heart rate and blood pressure whrn you are exercising on a treadmill or stationary bicycle
How is atherosclerosis treated?
Treatment includes changing your current lifestyle to lower the amount of fat and cholesterol intake. You may need to exercise more to improve the health of your heart and blood vessels.
Unless your atherosclerosis is serious your doctor may suggest lifestyle modifications as the first line of treatment. You may also require additional medical treatments, such as medications or surgery.
Medications can help prevent from worsening or severeness of atherosclerosis from worsening.
Medications for treating atherosclerosis are:
- cholesterol-lowering medications, including statins and fibrates
- angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, which may help prevent narrowing or hardening of your arteries
- beta-blockers or calcium channel blockers to reduce your blood pressure
- diuretics, or water pills, to help reduce your blood pressure
- anticoagulants and antiplatelet drugs such as aspirin to prevent blood from coagulation and blocking your arteries
Aspirin is particularly effective for people with a history of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, such as heart attack and stroke. Using aspirin can lower your risk of having another health complication.
If there’s no previous history of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, you should only take aspirin as a preventive medication if you are at lower risk of bleeding is and at higher risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.
If symptoms are particularly severe or if muscle or skin tissue are in denger, surgery may be required.
Following are the possible surgeries for treating atherosclerosis:
- bypass surgery, which includes using a vessel from somewhere else in your body or a synthetic tube to distract blood around your obstructed or narrowed artery
- thrombolytic therapy, which involves dissolving a blood clot by injecting a drug into the affected artery
- angioplasty, which involves using a catheter and a balloon to expand your artery, sometimes inserting a stent to permanent opening of the artery
- endarterectomy, which involves surgical removal of fatty deposits from your artery
- atherectomy, in which plaque is removed from your arteries by using a catheter with a sharp blade at one end
What should you expect in the long term?
With treatment, you may notice improvement in your health, but this may take time. The success of your treatment will depend on:
- the severity of your condition
- how immediately it treated
- whether other organs were affected
Hardening of the arteries can’t be reversed. However, treating the fundamental cause and maintaining a healthy lifestyle and dietary changes can help slow down the process or prevent it from getting worse.
You should take your doctor’s advice to make the required lifestyle changes.
You’ll also need to take the proper medications to check your condition and avoid complications.
What complications are associated with atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis can lead to:
It’s also linked with the following diseases:
Coronary artery disease (CAD)
Carotid artery disease
These arteries may be compromised if plaque builds up in their walls. The lack of circulation may reduce how much blood and oxygen reaches your brain’s tissue and cells. Learn more about carotid artery disease.
Peripheral artery disease
Your legs, arms, and lower body depend on your arteries to supply blood and oxygen to their tissues. Hardened arteries can cause circulation problems in these areas of the body.
Atherosclerosis of these arteries may cause kidney failure.
Which lifestyle changes help treat and prevent atherosclerosis?
Lifestyle improvements can help to prevent as well as treat atherosclerosis, particularly for people with type 2 diabetes.
Helpful lifestyle changes include:
- eating a healthy diet that’s low in saturated fat and cholesterol
- avoiding eating fat containing food
- adding fish to your diet twice a week
- practicing at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise or 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week
- quitting smoking if you’re used to it
- losing weight if you are overweight or obese
- managing stress
- treating conditions related to atherosclerosis, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes