Atherosclerosis: Causes, Symptoms, Risk Factors, Prevention and Treatment

People over the age of 40 are more likely to develop cardiovascular issues as they grow older. In the USA alone more than 600,000 people die of heart disease each year and it costs the health service more than $219 billion annually. 

Here we look at one form of heart disease called atherosclerosis, including who it affects and how it is treated.

What Is Atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is a disease that occurs when plaque, which is made up of a mix of fat, calcium and cholesterol, builds up on the walls of arteries causing narrowing. As this plaque continues to accumulate over time it restricts the flow of blood in the artery which becomes narrowed and hardened.

What Is the Difference Between Atherosclerosis and Arteriosclerosis?

Both arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis are often used interchangeably, even by physicians. Atherosclerosis is a subset of arteriosclerosis that broadly involves the thickening of arteries for any reason.

How Does Hardening of the Arteries Affect the Body?

Simply put, the arteries should be flexible and be able to narrow and widen depending on the body’s needs. 

When plaque builds up, it causes narrowing and affects the efficiency of the artery. It means that less blood and oxygen can be delivered around the body to vital organs, including the heart, brain, liver and lungs. 

Clots can also form where arteries have narrowed. These can then break off with the potential of causing a heart attack or stroke.

Obesity atherosclerosis risk factor

Atherosclerosis Risk Factors

Hardening of the arteries can begin in childhood and may take years to develop and before any symptoms show. Several risk factors can increase the likelihood that someone will develop a disease such as atherosclerosis as they age. These include:

What Causes Atherosclerosis?

While the exact cause of atherosclerosis is not known, it’s thought that it may occur when the artery itself is damaged. This can happen, for example, because of high blood pressure or chronically high cholesterol. When the damage occurs, fats and other substances start to clump around the artery. One of the biggest causes for concern is when a piece of the hardened artery breaks away and causes a dangerous blood clot that reaches the heart or brain.

Symptoms of Atherosclerosis

In the early stages of the disease, there will be little if no symptoms at all. As it progresses, the symptoms can vary depending on location. 

For example, if the blockage is near the heart, a person may experience chest pain. If it’s near the brain, they could have neurological symptoms such as numbness or weakness. Someone with atherosclerosis in the legs might feel pain when walking.

How Is Atherosclerosis Diagnosed?

The health care provider or physician will consider the medical history, both of the patient and their family. The initial physical exam includes taking the individual’s pulse to check for weakness. There will also be tests to determine the level of fats and cholesterol in the blood. 

If atherosclerosis is suspected, more direct diagnostic tests are undertaken. These include an angiography where a dye is injected into the artery and monitored via a special X-ray to help show up the potential blockage. 

Other tools include chest X-ray, CT scan, echocardiogram and exercise stress test, depending on where any narrowing is suspected.

Treatment of Atherosclerosis

There are various treatments for atherosclerosis. The most invasive is to surgically widen the narrowed artery. Medications may improve blood flow and reduce the risk of blood clots forming that could cause a heart attack or stroke. 

Affected individuals will also be asked to make lifestyle changes such as eating more healthily, stopping smoking (if they smoke) and undertaking more exercise. The good news is that the prognosis for people diagnosed with atherosclerosis is good if it is discovered early and managed promptly.

How Can Atherosclerosis be Prevented?

It’s not possible to completely prevent atherosclerosis but there are several things that individuals can do to reduce their risk and maintain a good level of health. These include:

  • Eat a healthy diet that is low in trans and saturated fats, salt, sugar and cholesterol and avoid choices such as processed foods. Switching to a plant-based diet is the healthiest choice. 
  • Exercise regularly – at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. 
  • Stop smoking
  • Limit consumption of alcohol. 
  • Maintain a healthy weight. 
  • Have a regular medical check to spot the signs of heart disease early.
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