You may not have heard of the term atherosclerosis, but you probably know it by another name: hardening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis is a buildup of plaque—a waxy, fatty substance—in the arteries. This plaque can rupture or fissure, causing blood clots to form on the exposed surface, and may lead to heart attack or stroke. Plus, you may not even know you have atherosclerosis since it usually does not have any symptoms.
Atherosclerosis can be diagnosed in a number of ways, including blood tests, electrocardiograms, CT scans and stress tests. During a physical exam, a doctor may actually hear the presence of plaque (which disrupts blood flow) by placing a stethoscope on a large artery.
Forms of atherosclerosis include coronary artery disease, which is atherosclerosis in arteries that feed the heart; carotid artery disease, or atherosclerosis in arteries that supply blood to the brain; and peripheral arterial disease, where arteries that supply blood to the arms, legs and pelvis are blocked.
Many of these risk factors are reversible or preventable.
High cholesterol and atherosclerosis often go hand-in-hand. High levels of saturated fat in the diet lead to higher LDL cholesterol levels (“bad” cholesterol), which can increase the risk of atherosclerosis. But healthy levels of HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind) can decrease risk.
Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are characterized by an excess of blood sugar. Too much sugar—aka glucose—in the bloodstream produces some chemicals that damage artery wall cells and reduces other chemicals that promote increased blood flow.
Smoking and secondhand smoke damage blood vessels, which directly increases the risk of atherosclerosis. They also lower HDL cholesterol levels and raise blood pressure. Smoking is the single most potent and most preventable cause of atherosclerosis and vascular events.
Obesity is thought to promote plaque formation in many ways. It contributes to other risk factors, like high cholesterol, HTN and diabetes, and causes chronic inflammation that injures blood vessels and leads to plaque formation.
Treatment and prevention
Atherosclerosis takes years to develop but taking charge of modifiable risk factors at any age is a key component in treating this disease.
Exercise, exercise, exercise is the most important element in treating and preventing atherosclerosis, along with a healthy diet and weight. Exercise reduces the load on the blood vessels, lowering the risks for stroke and heart attacks. It also helps to regulate blood sugar and blood pressure. A healthy diet with a careful watch on caloric food intake directly impacts reaching and maintaining your goal weight.
Speak to your doctor about your individual risk management plan to prevent atherosclerosis and take action today.
Osceola Regional Medical Center offers the most comprehensive services in the treatment of heart disease and stroke at the Heart and Vascular Institute and its Comprehensive Stroke Center – the highest level of stroke care in Osceola County. For more information, visit OsceolaRegional.com.