Atherosclerosis is a condition in which the walls of the arteries become thickened and lose elasticity. It is also called arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Arteries throughout the body may be affected, diminishing the blood supply in the areas they serve. Atherosclerosis of the coronary arteries surrounding the heart can cause angina and heart attack. In the brain, the disease can cause stroke. In the kidneys, it can cause kidney failure. When the legs are affected, walking can become painful and limb loss can occur.
WHAT CAUSES ATHEROSCLEROSIS?
All blood vessels lose a certain amount of elasticity as we age. However, the serious hardening of atherosclerosis is caused by a buildup of fatty deposits, called plaque, on the inner lining of artery walls. The primary component of plaque is cholesterol.
WHO IS AT GREATEST RISK OF DEVELOPING ATHEROSCLEROSIS?
Having high levels of total blood cholesterol, and especially its low-density lipoprotein (LDL) component, place you at significant risk. So do other factors that contribute to artery wall injury or the buildup of plaque, such as smoking, diabetes, hypertension, and a sedentary lifestyle.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
Most people don’t know they have it until they develop one of the complications of advanced atherosclerosis, such as angina, shortness of breath, heart attack, difficulty walking, stroke, memory loss or other signs of dementia.
HOW IS ATHEROSCLEROSIS DIAGNOSED?
Studies of blood circulation, such as noninvasive tests (ultrasound, blood pressure cuff tests), stress tests, magnetic resonance scanning, CT scanning and arteriograms can diagnose atherosclerosis. Sometimes, a thorough physical examination is all that is required to make the diagnosis.
HOW IS IT TREATED?
Treatment depends on the site and degree of atherosclerosis.
The first line of treatment, no matter what else is eventually done, is modification of your lifestyle, which can often halt or reverse atherosclerosis.
Eat a diet low in cholesterol (found in animal foods) and in total fat (because your body makes more cholesterol from fat), especially saturated fat. On food labels, look for the terms ‘saturated fat’ or ‘trans fatty acids’. If you smoke, quit. Work on reducing your weight if you are overweight. Exercise regularly to help maintain ideal weight, prevent or control high blood pressure and the onset of diabetes; and help raise the level of high density lipoprotein (HDL) in your blood, thus proportionately reducing your LDL. If you have hypertension or diabetes, follow your self-care regimen carefully to keep your blood pressure and blood sugar levels as close to normal as possible.
In addition to lifestyle changes, your doctor may prescribe medication, such as a daily aspirin or other platelet blockers to help prevent blood clots from forming in your clogged arteries, and drugs to help lower blood cholesterol if a strict diet fails to bring you to a healthy level.
In severe cases of atherosclerosis, invasive procedures may be needed. For example, using angioplasty with or without stents, a catheter with a balloon tip can be inserted into a narrowed artery and then inflated to widen the passage for blood flow. Bypass surgery can utilize a blood vessel taken from elsewhere in the body to replace obstructed arteries, or arteries can be surgically opened and the fatty plaque removed.
CAN ATHEROSCLEROSIS BE PREVENTED?
To a certain extent, your risk of the disease is hereditary. However, your lifestyle can play a significant role in helping prevent the development of atherosclerosis. Prevention involves following the same lifestyle measures advised for treatment. Also see your doctor regularly to have your blood pressure, blood glucose, and cholesterol levels measured.