Atherosclerosis

Healthy arteries are like pipes in a new house. Their inside walls are smooth and clean, making it possible to easily move the blood your body needs. But your arteries, like pipes, can become clogged.

Atherosclerosis is the disease that clogs your arteries over time. It is sometimes called hardening of the arteries, and it happens slowly over many years, starting as early as childhood. But, in most people, it usually doesn't start causing problems until you reach age 50.

Atherosclerosis happens when excess fat and cholesterol bond with calcium and other waste products in your blood to form plaque.
Plaque clings to the walls of your arteries and builds up over time. This makes your arteries narrow and hard. The narrow arteries then slow blood flow to your most vital organs, as well as to your arms and legs.

Sometimes, a piece of plaque will break off and enter your bloodstream. In other cases a blood clot may form on the surface of the plaque. Both of these conditions can completely block an artery, stopping the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the surrounding tissue.

If you get atherosclerosis in the arteries that supply your heart muscle, it can cause coronary artery disease. This can lead to angina or chest pain, heart attack, or sudden death.

If you get atherosclerosis in the arteries that supply your brain, the lack of oxygen can cause a transient ischemic attack or TIA, or a full-blown stroke.

Atherosclerosis in the arteries that supply your kidneys, abdomen, arms and legs can also cause serious problems.

Causes

Doctors don't exactly know how atherosclerosis begins or what causes it. Some think that certain risk factors may make you more likely to get atherosclerosis. These include:

  • High levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood
  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • A family history of atherosclerosis
  • Diabetes
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Not getting enough exercise, and
  • Eating foods high in saturated fat

Symptoms

Some people with atherosclerosis don't have any symptoms at all. It can take many years to build up enough plaque in the arteries to cause symptoms. You might not even know you have atherosclerosis until you have a heart attack, stroke, aneurysm, or blood clot.

Diagnosis

To find out if you have atherosclerosis, your provider will ask about your medical history and give you an exam. He or she may also recommend certain tests. Those tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Electrocardiogram, or ECG
  • Ultrasound
  • Angiogram, or
  • Other imaging tests like a CT or MRI scan

Treatment

If your tests show that you have atherosclerosis, your provider will likely recommend certain lifestyle changes. Lifestyle changes are enough to keep your atherosclerosis from getting worse. Some changes your provider may recommend are:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Losing weight
  • Eating a healthy diet, low in saturated fat and cholesterol
  • Exercising to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure, and help you manage your weight, and
  • Managing your blood sugar if you have diabetes.

If these changes aren't enough, you may also need to take medication. Some medications help lower your cholesterol. Others will help lower your blood pressure or help prevent blood clots.

You may need a procedure or surgery if your condition is more severe.

Things to Remember

Atherosclerosis can cause a heart attack, stroke, and death.
Lifestyle changes can help prevent or treat atherosclerosis. They can also reduce your chances of having a heart attack or stroke.
You may need medications, procedures, or surgery to treat your atherosclerosis.

What We Have Learned

Quitting smoking can help reduce your chance of having a heart attack. True or False? The answer is true. Smoking is a major risk factor for atherosclerosis.

People who have atherosclerosis always have symptoms. True or False? The answer is false. You might not learn that you have atherosclerosis until you are diagnosed with a medical condition caused by the disease.

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