In this day and age of fast living and instant food, we often don’t notice how much our unhealthy habits have slowly crept up on us. Diseases ravaging our cardiovascular system is at an all-time high and one of the top causes of death worldwide. Atherosclerosis is one of these diseases. Its name comes from the Greek words arteio (meaning artery) and sclerosis (hardness). Atherosclerosis happens when deposits of fatty substances, cholesterol, cellular waste products, calcium and other substances build up in the inner lining of a large or medium artery. An artery is blood vessel carrying blood away from the heart and carrying oxygen, which we need to survive. The buildup, called plaque, can grow significantly large enough to interfere with the blood flow going to the different parts of our body. If it blocks an artery that goes to the heart, you may get a heart attack. If it blocks an artery going to the brain, you may get a stroke.
Believe or not, atherosclerosis can actually start as early as your childhood. It can begin with damage within the inner layer of your artery. Atherosclerosis then develops from low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), also known as “bad cholesterol”. When this gets through the wall of the artery, oxygen reacts with it to form oxidized-LDL. Your immune system responds by sending white blood cells to absorb the oxidized-LDL. However, the white blood cells cannot actually process it and then aggravate the buildup, making the immune system send more white blood cells and so on. Eventually, the artery becomes inflamed and the plaque causes the muscle cells to become bigger and form a shell over the affected area. This shell makes the artery narrower, reduces blood flow and increases blood pressure. Other causes include:
- High levels of cholesterol and triglyceride, usually found in vegetable oil and animal fats
- High blood pressure
- Irritants such as nicotine
- Disease such as diabetes
Some researchers also say atherosclerosis may be caused by an infection in the vascular smooth muscle cells such as the herpes virus infection of arterial smooth muscle cells, which causes the accumulation of cholsteryl ester in the arteries.
Genetics, or a family history of heart disease and diabetes, may predetermine you as someone who can get atherosclerosis, but most risk factors are related to your lifestyle, including:
- High blood pressure
- High-fat, high-cholesterol diet
- Sedentary lifestyle, getting no exercise
- Clinical depression
- Advanced age
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland)
Atherosclerosis is typically asymptomatic, meaning it shows no obvious signs or symptoms as plaque builds up in the arteries. It becomes symptomatic when it finally interferes with our coronary circulation. Atherosclerosis is considered the most important underlying cause of strokes, heart attacks, heart diseases and cardiovascular diseases.
Atherosclerosis can cause these major complications:
- Coronary artery disease. This is caused by atherosclerosis when it narrows down the arteries close to your heart. It may cause you chest pain (angina) or a heart attack.
- Carotid artery disease. This is caused when the arteries close to your brain narrows down, which may cause a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or a stroke.
- Peripheral artery disease. When atherosclerosis narrows down the arteries in your arms or legs, it may cause circulation problems. It can also make you less sensitive to temperatures, which can make you susceptible to burns or frostbite. A slowed circulation can also cause tissue death, which can lead to gangrene or infection.
- Infarction. This is caused by a formation of a blood clot which can rapidly slow or suddenly stop blood flow, which may lead to the death of tissues or organs fed by the artery.
- Aneurysm. Arteries can enlarge to compensate narrowing, but if it becomes too enlarged, it may cause aneurysm, which may burst and cause instant death.
Lifestyle changes. Once diagnosed with atherosclerosis, your doctor will most likely recommend a lifestyle change, which could include the following:
- Low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-salt diet
- Eat more fruit and vegetables
- Eat more fish, but not fried fish. If you don’t like fish, try fish oil supplements
- Exercise thirty minutes daily. People who are overweight should get sixty to ninety minutes of exercise daily
- Stop smoking
Your doctor may prescribe medication as preventive and as a form of treatment.
- Aspirin. If you have one or more risk factors for heart attack or stroke, ask your doctor if you can take aspirin everyday. Aspirin has an anti-clotting effect and when used longterm, small doses can be used to prevent heart attacks and strokes.
- Prophylaxic. A combination of aspirin and statins can also be prescribed as a preventive measure against atherosclerosis-related diseases.
- Cholesterol medication. This medication aggressively lowers your “bad cholesterol” which can slow, stop and even reverse the buildup of plaque in your arteries. Increasing your “good cholesterol” intake can help while you are taking medication. Some examples of cholesterol medication are statins and fibrates, which lower cholesterol levels.
- Anti-platelet medication. This medication decreases blood platelets from clumping together and forming blood clots and artery blockage.
- Anticoagulant. Also known as blood thinners, which, as the name implies, thin blood to prevent it from clotting and blocking your arteries. Some examples of anticoagulants include herparin and warfarin.
- Blood pressure medication. Controls blood pressure and slow the progression of atherosclerosis.
- Other medication. Your doctor may also prescribe medication for other conditions that may cause atherosclerosis, like diabetes.
If you are at a higher risk of suffering from the more serious effects of atherosclerosis, you may be a candidate for these surgical procedures:
- Angioplasty. This surgical procedure mechanically widens your artery using a long, thin tube called a catheter. A wire with a deflated balloon is passed through the catheter and is then inflated, compressing the plaque into the artery walls. A stent, or mesh, is left in the artery to keep it open. This procedure may also be done with laser technology.
- Endarterectomy. A procedure done to remove plaque from the walls of your artery. This is mostly done to neck arteries to prevent strokes.
- Thrombolytic therapy. In this procedure, your doctor inserts a clot-dissolving drug in the artery to break up the plaque.
- Bypass surgery. Using a vessel from another part of your body or a tube made of synthetic fabric, your doctor makes a graft bypass to allow blood flow around the blocked or narrowed artery.
Anyone can be a victim of atherosclerosis, and it’s never too early to take preventive measures against it. Having a healthy lifestyle is the best way to prevent atherosclerosis, because you may be living in fast and instant times, but your well-being can go just as fast and just as instantly if you don’t take care of yourself.
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