Atherosclerosis Health Guide

Atherosclerosis is a condition in which arteries -- the vessels that carry blood and oxygen throughout your body --  become lined with plaque. Here's what you should know about keeping your arteries healthy.


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This process begins as early as childhood and progresses as we age. Over time, plaque can narrow the arteries, limiting blood flow to the heart, brain and other parts of the body.

Many people are unaware that they have atherosclerosis since the symptoms associated with it may not show up until the artery has significantly narrowed and blood flow is greatly limited or blocked.

The symptoms of atherosclerosis vary widely and depend on the location of the narrowed artery.

For coronary arteries: Symptoms might include angina (chest pain), arrhythmias, or shortness of breath. Blockage in these arteries could lead to a heart attack.

For carotid arteries: Symptoms might include dizziness, confusion, or sudden headaches. Blockage in these arteries could lead to a stroke.

For arteries leading to the extremities, symptoms might include leg pain, cramping, and poor wound healing in the extremities.

Plaque is a buildup of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances, on the inside walls of the arteries.

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This buildup narrows the arteries, limiting blood flow. Over time, the plaque hardens, which is why atherosclerosis is sometimes referred to as "hardening of the arteries."

 Plaque is primarily caused by:

  • High cholesterol, especially high LDL cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking

Other conditions that can speed the development and deposit of plaque include:

  • Uncontrolled diabetes
  • Obesity
  • High triglycerides
  • Low HDL cholesterol
  • High fat, high cholesterol diet
  • Physical inactivity

As plaque builds and the artery walls narrow, blood flow to the body is limited and can become blocked completely.

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When blood flow from arteries going to the heart is limited, you may experience chest pain or shortness of breath. If those arteries become completely blocked, the heart will be deprived of blood and oxygen, resulting in a heart attack.

A similar series of events occur elsewhere in the body. For instance, when arteries leading to the brain are blocked, a stroke can occur. Diminished blood flow in arteries near the extremities results in peripheral artery disease (PAD).

There are many atherosclerosis risk factors you can control, including:

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Diet: Following a lowfat, low cholesterol diet will reduce the amount of fats circulating in the blood. It's especially important to limit saturated fat and cholesterol (found in meat, dairy, and other animal products), and trans fats (such as hydrogenated oils). Exercise can help raise HDL cholesterol, the good cholesterol that helps fight plaque buildup.

Weight: Being overweight or obese raises blood pressure and increases the risk for Type 2 diabetes — both risk factors for atherosclerosis. Excess fat around the abdomen increases production of LDL cholesterol, the bad cholesterol that leads to plaque formation and buildup.

Blood Glucose: High blood glucose levels, present in undiagnosed and uncontrolled diabetes, can increase the amount of fatty deposits on arterial walls. If you're diabetic, regularly check your blood glucose and make sure it's at a healthy level.

Smoking: The smoke from tobacco speeds damage to the arteries. If you smoke, you need to quit. You also should avoid secondhand smoke.

Genetics and age are uncontrollable risk factors for atherosclerosis.

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Genetics: Some people have a genetic predisposition for high cholesterol or high blood pressure despite strict dietary changes. In these cases, medication, in addition to lifestyle changes, may be needed to manage these conditions and avoid or slow the progression of atherosclerosis.

Aging: The older your arteries get, the more time plaque has to form. Everyone will have some plaque buildup as they get older, but it will be much worse if you smoked, ate a high fat diet, didn't exercise or had other habits in your younger years that put you at greater risk. You can't redo the past but you can make changes going forward that will stop any further damage.

Discuss your personal risk factors for atherosclerosis with your doctor.

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Review the questions below and discuss the answers with your doctor. Once you know your level of risk for atherosclerosis, you and your doctor can discuss what steps you can take to reduce those risks.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or a family history of heart disease that could increase your risk?
  • Do you know your HDL and LDL cholesterol and triglyceride numbers? If so, do you know what they mean?
  • Do you eat a high fat diet? Do you exercise? Do you smoke? The more honest you are about your lifestyle, the more your doctor can help you.
  • Do you know the symptoms of atherosclerosis? Have you experienced any of them?

If you are at low to moderate risk, your doctor may suggest changes to your diet and activity level.

If you're at high risk, your doctor may recommend a cholesterol lowering drug in addition to diet and lifestyle changes.

To diagnose atherosclerosis, your doctor will first review your risk factors, including your blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

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To diagnose atherosclerosis, your doctor will first review your risk factors, including your blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

If your risk level indicates possible atherosclerosis, your doctor will initially check for signs of diminished blood flow in arteries leading to the heart, brain, and other parts of the body, such as the legs. This may include checking for a diminished pulse or arterial bruits (the whooshing sound heard through a stethoscope when it's placed over an artery).

To further diagnose and confirm atherosclerosis, your doctor may order one or more of the following tests:

  • Ankle/Brachial Index
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG)
  • Chest X-Ray
  • Echocardiograph
  • CT Scan
  • Stress Test
  • Angiograph 
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Your doctor will decide what approach is best for you, but in general, treatment for atherosclerosis may include one or more of the following:

  • Lowfat, low-cholesterol diet
  • Low sodium diet
  • Exercise
  • Weight loss
  • Smoking cessation
  • Cholesterol lowering drugs (such as statins)
  • Blood pressure lowering drugs

How does an artery become blocked? Blockage occurs when the artery becomes so narrow that blood can no longer get through or, more commonly, when something traveling through the blood becomes lodged in the narrowed artery. This is often a blood clot but can also be a piece of plaque that broke off.

Why is it important to have healthy arteries? Healthy arteries allow blood to flow freely through the body, feeding vital organs such as the heart and brain, with oxygen and nutrients. This allows for better physical and mental functioning and a reduced risk of heart attack and stroke.

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