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Atherosclerosis is a narrowing of the arteries caused by a buildup of plaque. It’s also called arteriosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. Arteries are the blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients from your heart to the rest of your body.
As you get older, fat and cholesterol can collect in your arteries and form plaque. The buildup of plaque makes it difficult for blood to flow through your arteries. This buildup may occur in any artery in your body and can result in a shortage of blood and oxygen in various tissues of your body. Pieces of plaque can also break off, causing a blood clot. Atherosclerosis can lead to heart attack, stroke, or heart failure if left untreated.
Atherosclerosis is a fairly common problem associated with aging. This condition can be prevented, and many successful treatment options exist.
Atherosclerosis occurs when fat, cholesterol, and calcium harden in your arteries. Atherosclerosis can occur in an artery located anywhere in your body, including your heart, legs, and kidneys.
Atherosclerosis can cause the following diseases:
Coronary artery disease occurs when the coronary arteries of your heart become hard. The coronary arteries are blood vessels that provide your heart’s muscle tissue with oxygen and blood. Plaque prevents blood flow to the heart.
The carotid arteries are found in your neck and supply blood to your brain. These arteries may be compromised if plaque builds up in their walls. The lack of circulation may reduce how much blood and oxygen reaches your brain’s tissue and cells.
Your legs, arms, and lower body depend on your arteries to supply blood and oxygen to their tissues. Hardened arteries can cause circulation problems in these areas of the body.
The renal arteries supply blood to your kidneys. Kidneys filter waste products and extra water from your blood. Atherosclerosis of these arteries may lead to kidney failure.
Plaque buildup and subsequent hardening of the arteries restricts blood flow in the arteries, preventing your organs and tissues from getting the oxygenated blood they need to function.
The following are common causes of hardening of the arteries:
Cholesterol is a waxy, yellow substance that’s found naturally in your body and also in certain foods you eat. This substance can increase in your blood and clog your arteries. It becomes a hard plaque that restricts or blocks blood circulation to your heart and other organs.
Eating foods high in fat may also lead to plaque buildup.
As you age, your heart and blood vessels work harder to pump and receive blood. Your arteries may weaken and become less elastic, making them more susceptible to plaque buildup.
Many factors place you at risk for atherosclerosis. Some risks can be prevented, while others cannot.
If atherosclerosis runs in your family, you may be at risk for hardening of the arteries. This condition as well as other heart-related problems may be inherited.
Regular exercise is good for your heart. It keeps your heart muscle strong and encourages oxygen and blood flow throughout your body. Living a sedentary lifestyle increases your risk for a host of medical conditions, including heart disease.
Eating foods high in fat and cholesterol raises your risk for atherosclerosis.
High blood pressure can damage your blood vessels by making them weak in some areas. Cholesterol and other substances in your blood may reduce the flexibility of your arteries over time.
Smoking tobacco products can damage your blood vessels and heart.
People with diabetes have a much higher incidence of coronary artery disease.
Most symptoms of atherosclerosis don’t show until a blockage occurs. Common symptoms include:
It’s also important to know the symptoms of heart attack and stroke. Both of these problems can be caused by atherosclerosis and require immediate medical attention. The symptoms of a heart attack include:
The symptoms of stroke include:
Call 911 and get to a hospital’s emergency room as soon as possible if you experience symptoms of a heart attack or stroke.
Your doctor will perform a physical exam if you have symptoms of atherosclerosis. They’ll check for:
A heart specialist called a cardiologist may listen to your heart to see if you have any abnormal sounds. They’ll be listening for a whooshing noise, which indicates that an artery is blocked. Your doctor will order more tests if they think you may have atherosclerosis. These tests can include:
Treatment involves changing your current lifestyle to one that limits the amount of fat and cholesterol you consume. You may need to exercise more to improve the health of your heart and blood vessels.
You may also need additional medical treatments, such as:
Medications can help prevent atherosclerosis from worsening. Medications include:
In some cases, surgery may be necessary if symptoms are especially severe, or if muscle or skin tissue are endangered. Possible surgeries for treating atherosclerosis include:
With treatment, you may see improvement in your health, but this may take time. The success of your treatment will depend on the severity of your condition, how promptly it was treated, and whether other organs were affected. Hardening of the arteries cannot be reversed, but treating the underlying cause and making healthy lifestyle and dietary changes can help slow down the process or prevent it from getting worse.
You should work closely with your doctor to make the appropriate lifestyle changes. You’ll also need to take the proper medications to control your condition and avoid complications. The complications of atherosclerosis include:
Lifestyle changes can help to prevent as well as treat atherosclerosis. Unless your atherosclerosis is severe, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes as the first line of treatment. Lifestyle changes include:
Written by: Janelle Martel
Medically reviewed on: May 01, 2017: Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, RN, CNE, COI
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