Understanding atherosclerosis

Many serious diseases offer warning signs of their presence. Unfortunately, atherosclerosis isn't one of them.

This disease, which happens when arteries clog and stiffen, usually doesn't cause symptoms until an artery is severely narrowed or blocked. Because of that, you may not know you have atherosclerosis until you have a heart attack or stroke, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

That's why it's important to learn about the risk factors for the disease and to take action now to protect your health.

Plaque buildup

Atherosclerosis is a complex disease that often starts during childhood and progresses slowly as a person ages.

The disease occurs when fatty substances—known as plaque—build up on the inner lining of an artery.

This plaque can reduce blood flow. However, plaque is most dangerous if it becomes fragile and ruptures, according to the American Heart Association

Plaques that rupture can cause blood clots to form. These clots can block an artery or break off and travel to another part of your body.

If a clot blocks an artery that carries blood to your heart, it can cause a heart attack. If a clot blocks blood flow to your brain, it can cause a stroke. And if blood supply to your legs is reduced, it can lead to peripheral artery disease (PAD). PAD can cause you to have difficulty walking and could eventually lead to gangrene and amputation.

Risk factors

The exact cause of atherosclerosis is unknown, according to the NHLBI. However, there are several risk factors that can contribute to the problem:

  • Age—the risk goes up after age 45 for men and after age 55 for women.
  • A family history of the disease.
  • High cholesterol.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Diabetes.
  • Smoking.
  • Being overweight.
  • Lack of physical activity.
  • Stress.
  • Alcohol use.

The more risk factors you have, the greater your chances are of getting atherosclerosis, the NHLBI says. If you have risk factors for atherosclerosis, talk to your doctor about how to address them.

Treatment options

Left untreated, atherosclerosis can cause serious health problems. But with the proper treatment, you can control the disease. Your doctor may recommend one or more of the following:

Lifestyle changes. Sometimes making changes to your lifestyle is the only treatment you will need. For example, the NHLBI says you should:

  • Eat right. Choose a healthy, low-sodium diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Avoid foods high in saturated and trans fats.
  • Exercise. Check with your doctor to find out what activities are right for you. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderately intense activity most days of the week, unless your doctor instructs you otherwise.
  • Lose weight if you are overweight.
  • Quit smoking and avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.

Medication. Your doctor may prescribe medicines to help lower your blood pressure or cholesterol or to prevent blood clots from forming.

Surgery. If you have severe atherosclerosis, your doctor may recommend a surgical procedure such as:

  • Angioplasty, a procedure in which a balloon is used to open a blocked or narrowed artery.
  • Coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG), a type of surgery in which arteries or veins from other areas of your body are used to bypass a blocked or narrowed coronary artery and improve blood flow.
  • Bypass grafting surgery for the leg arteries. Similar to CABG, the procedure uses a healthy blood vessel to bypass a narrowed or blocked leg artery, restoring blood flow.
  • Carotid artery surgery, a procedure done to remove plaque from the carotid arteries in the neck. This surgery can help prevent stroke by improving blood flow to the brain.

Take action now

By quitting smoking, eating healthy foods, staying active and following other advice from your doctor, you can take steps to take care of your arteries and prevent atherosclerosis.

reviewed 1/10/2019

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