Atherosclerosis is a condition where there is thickening of the arterial walls due to accumulation of fatty substances and calcium. It ultimately causes the arteries to become narrower. Atherosclerosis is a silent killer that progresses slowly and affects different organs of the body in the long run. Currently worldwide atherosclerosis is considered to be one of the most important causes of death.
Atherosclerosis does not cause any symptom until it is quite late. The narrowing of the arterial walls impairs blood supply to the different organs of the body and ultimately leads to a number of symptoms, depending upon the affected organs. Although atherosclerosis may affect any part of the arterial tree of the body the most commonly affected arteries are high pressure blood vessels like coronary arteries supplying the heart muscles, carotid arteries supplying brain and renal arteries supplying the kidney.
Lifestyle changes including regular exercising, giving up cigarette smoking and eating a healthy diet are effective non-drugs ways of preventing and treating atherosclerosis, but often medication is needed to prevent a heart attack and stroke in particular.
In the early stages of atherosclerosis there are usually no symptoms. With progression of the condition and as the narrowing worsens, a numbers of symptoms arise depending upon the organ in question.
Atherosclerosis of the arteries supplying the heart and brain are often the main concern for most people, as it has the most serious outcomes – a heart attack or stroke. It is therefore worth focussing on the symptoms that arise when these two organs are affected with reduced blood supply as a result of atherosclerosis.
- Chest pain (angina)
- Dizziness (sometimes)
- Unexpected and profuse sweating
- Weakness on one side of the body (especially limbs and face)
- Tingling and numbness
These symptoms largely resemble a heart attack or stroke but is often temporary and goes away in a short while.It is a result of reduced blood flow but not a complete blockage. When these fatty plaques in the artery wall ruptures, the a blood clot can form. This completely blocks the already narrowed artery. The same can occur when a blood clot from elsewhere in the body gets lodged and blocks the narrowed part of the artery. The blockage cuts off the blood supply.
The exact cause of atherosclerosis is not known. Diet and lifestyle factors are known to increase the likelihood of happening but is not the underlying cause. Atherosclerosis usually leads to symptoms by middle age, although it may have started much earlier in life and remained undetected. As a person gets older, the risk of developing atherosclerosis increases.
These are some of the risk factors for developing atherosclerosis:
- Being over 40 years of age.
- Men are at a higher risk.
- High blood pressure (hypertension).
- High blood cholesterol.
- Long-standing diabetes.
- Cigarette smoking.
- Family history.
- Alcohol misuse.
The fatty deposits that form will stay for life and grow over months or years unless there is dietary and lifestyle or medical intervention. In fact there may not be complete resolutions of these plaques but it can decrease in size or at least not grow any further with proper treatment.
Diet and Lifestyle
- Lose weight if overweight or obese.
- Reduce the intake of saturated fats and high GI carbohydrates.
- Eat balanced meals without exceeding the daily calorie intake.
- Exercise regularly, at least 30 minutes per workout for 5 days in a week,
- Stop cigarette smoking immediately.
- Moderate alcohol intake – maximum 2 units per day for men, and 1 unit for women.
Some of the drugs that may be prescribed for the underlying risk factors or to prevent complications, include:
- Aspirin – to prevent blood clots.
- Statins – to reduce blood cholesterol levels.
- ACE inhibitors/beta-blockers – to reduce blood pressure.
In severe cases with complications surgical procedures like angioplasty and stenting may be done to widen the narrowing and prevent it from occurring. Thrombolytic therapy is necessary immediately once blood clots form like in a heart attack or stroke. Bypass surgery is done to establish a new channel around the point of the blockage.