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Atherosclerosis is simply the build-up of fatty material inside your blood vessels. The inner walls of healthy arteries are smooth and clean. This makes it easy to transport the blood your body needs to all the different parts of the body. When fatty material builds up within the arteries, they can become clogged. This causes the arteries to narrow and harden over time and makes it increasingly difficult for blood to flow freely to other parts of the body. It’s very common in middle age and older people and it’s the condition that causes most heart attacks and strokes. Certain factors can damage the inner area of the artery and lead to atherosclerosis.
These factors include:
- a family history of heart disease or atherosclerosis
- being physically inactive
- high blood pressure
- being overweight
- high levels of cholesterol
- high levels of sugar in the blood
Managing these conditions if you have them and having a healthy lifestyle can help to lower your chance of developing atherosclerosis.
Early diagnosis of atherosclerosis can prevent serious complications.
Atherosclerosis develops gradually, and those with mild forms of the disease may not experience any symptoms at all.
Many people with atherosclerosis don’t know they have the condition until their arteries are so narrowed or clogged they can’t supply adequate blood to their organs and tissues.
Common symptoms of atherosclerosis include:
- Chest pain (angina)
- Pain anywhere that an artery is blocked
- Shortness of breath
- Confusion (if the blockage affects circulation to the brain)
- Muscle weakness in the legs from lack of circulation
If you have atherosclerosis in your heart arteries, you may have symptoms, such as chest pain or pressure (angina).
Similarly, if you have atherosclerosis in the arteries leading to your brain, you may experience sudden numbness or weakness in your arms or legs, difficulty speaking or slurred speech, or drooping muscles in your face.
f symptoms do occur, their location and severity generally depend on the blood vessels affected.
What lifestyle changes can help prevent atherosclerosis?
- Maintaining a good, healthy diet – A diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol can raise your cholesterol levels. Oily fish like salmon and oysters, rich in unsaturated, omega 3 fatty acids are healthier options in comparison to red meat or processed fast food. The American Heart Association recommends that you reduce the amount of meat, eggs, milk, and other dairy products in your diet. Check food labels to find the amount of saturated fat in a product. Also, avoid large amounts of salt and sugar. Be careful with processed foods like frozen dinners. They can be high in fat, sugar, salt, and cholesterol. Your diet should include lots of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, lean meats and fish, as well as whole-grains like oats and whole-wheat, rich in fiber.
- Regular Exercise – You’ve probably heard this a million times but that’s because it’s true. Regular aerobic exercises like walking, jogging, swimming, and running are great for the heart because they help to reduce the cholesterol level in the blood. It also helps to control your weight, reduce blood pressure and improve your mental health. If you don’t know where to start, you can set a small goal of running for 10-15 minutes every day and then increase it slowly as your body adjusts to it. You can also exercise at home. Studies have shown that those that incorporate exercise into their daily activities are able to maintain an active lifestyle for a long time and therefore enjoy the benefits.
- Quitting smoking – Smoking damages the artery walls which can lead to atherosclerosis. Smoking cessation can be tough but there are medications that can ease withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings. They are most effective when used as part of a comprehensive ‘stop smoking program’ monitored by your physician. Options available include nicotine replacement therapy which involves “replacing” cigarettes with other nicotine substitutes, such as nicotine gum, patch, lozenge, inhaler, or nasal spray. It relieves some of the withdrawal symptoms by delivering small and steady doses of nicotine into your body without the tars and poisonous gases found in cigarettes. There are also medications such as bupropion (Zyban) and varenicline (Chantix, Champix) which help to manage withdrawal symptoms but are intended for short-term use only.
- Getting regular medical check-ups – Have your healthcare provider check your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. High blood pressure or high blood sugar can further complicate atherosclerosis by causing artery walls to harden and thicken. But when detected at the early stages, it can be treated completely and complications can be prevented. Talk about your health and your risk factors for atherosclerosis with your doctor.
Should I Take a Statin?
Statins are a group of medicines that can help lower the level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the blood. LDL cholesterol is often referred to as “bad cholesterol”, and statins reduce the production of it inside the liver. This ‘bad’ cholesterol is the one that accumulates within the blood vessels causing problems like stroke, heart attack and angina. Statins are one of the most abused medications in the western world today. They are commonly marketed as medications for weight loss and are taken by unsuspecting people in a bid to lose weight. They have numerous therapeutic effects but must be used when prescribed and as prescribed to avoid experiencing side effects like the blocked nose, sore throat, headache, nausea (feeling sick), diarrhea, constipation, indigestion, pain in your muscles, joints and back pain, blurred vision and sleep disturbances. They are usually used as tablets that are taken once a day. The tablets should normally be taken at the same time each day, most people take them just before going to bed. In most cases, medical treatment with statins continues for life, as stopping the medication causes your cholesterol to return to a high level within a few weeks. However, when people take them without prescription, they usually end up stopping abruptly and this could lead to more weight gain or worse, more disturbing side effects. If you experience any symptoms of atherosclerosis or you want to lose weight or someone in your family has atherosclerosis and you want to prevent it, it’s best to go to see a doctor near you to be properly checked and to get the right treatment and advice.
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European Atherosclerosis Society. (2015). Atherosclerosis Supplements, 19, p.iv.
Raggi, P. (2016). Inflammation, depression and atherosclerosis or depression, inflammation and atherosclerosis?. Atherosclerosis, 251, pp.542-543.
Smoking and atherosclerosis. (2002). Atherosclerosis Supplements, 3(2), p.230.