Atherosclerosis: A Preventable Killer
Cardiovascular disease kills over 800,000 Americans each year. One of the
most common causes of this killer is a condition called atherosclerosis. In patients
with this condition, cholesterol invades the walls of the arteries reducing blood
flow and leading to potentially deadly blood clots. These clots can cause heart
attacks, strokes and other vascular problems.
Atherosclerosis is a progressive condition that becomes worse as people
age. Doctors estimate that most people over 60 years of age have some degree of
this condition, although most have no discernible symptoms.
Although it is a serious and potentially deadly condition, there are
http://www.agingfit.com/atherosclerosis a number of effective treatment and
prevention strategies for atherosclerosis sufferers and those at risk of developing
What Causes Atherosclerosis
What the exact cause of atherosclerosis, researchers are uncertain.
Researchers theorize that it begins with damage to the lining of arteries, a type of
tissue called endothelium. Such damage could result from high blood pressure,
smoking, elevated levels of fat and cholesterol in the blood or high blood sugar due
to diabetes or insulin resistance.
Whatever its cause, the damaged endothelium is vulnerable to invasion by a
type of cholesterol called LDL or bad cholesterol. The LDL adheres to the
damaged arterial walls, attracting white blood cells.
The resulting mass of cholesterol, white blood cells and cellular debris forms
a substance called plaque. Plaque builds up in the arteries, narrowing the space
available for blood to flow.
This leads to blocked arteries, arterial rupture and, eventually. heart attacks
Symptoms of Atherosclerosis
While damage to the arteries and plaque formation can start in childhood,
symptoms may not begin until patients are middle aged or older. These symptoms
only occur when the space within the arteries narrows to the point that organs do
not receive adequate blood supply or when plaque causes arteries to rupture,
leading to blood clots.
Symptoms vary by the location of the affected arteries.
Atherosclerosis in the arteries of the heart often presents as angina,
commonly called chest pain. Stable atherosclerotic plaques in the brain can result
in numbness, muscle weakness, drooping of the face or slurred speech.
In the arms and legs, atherosclerosis usually presents as pain associated with
movement. Any of these symptoms should prompt patients to seek immediate
Once symptoms occur, atherosclerosis is already moderate or severe.
Further delay in obtaining treatment could result in a heart attack, stroke or other
How To Diagnose the Disease
The diagnosis of atherosclerosis involves a thorough medical history,
physical examination, laboratory evaluations and imaging studies. Doctors will
use history to determine a patient’s risk factors for atherosclerosis and the presence
of any symptoms consistent with the condition.
On physical examination, patients with atherosclerosis may have evidence of
abdominal aneurysm or aneurysm behind the knee, decreased pulse or blood
pressure in diseased limbs, poor wound healing due to decreased blood flow or
abnormal sounds over the arteries as heard through a stethoscope.
If a doctor suspects atherosclerosis, he or she will order further tests.
These will usually include blood work to measure blood sugar and
cholesterol and other tests. The choice of further tests will depend on the location
or locations of suspected blockages.
Common tests include Doppler ultrasounds to measure blood flow,
electrocardiograms, stress tests, angiograms and other imaging studies such as
magnetic resonance angiograms and CT scans.
How To Promote Cardiovascular Health
The best way to prevent atherosclerosis is to lead a healthy, active life.
Patients need to eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, avoid or quit smoking,
drink alcohol only in moderation and maintain a healthy weight.
The best diet for atherosclerosis prevention is one that is low in fat,
cholesterol and sodium and consists of lean protein sources, low fat dairy products
and plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Additionally, patients need to be careful about blood sugar levels and blood
pressure. High blood pressure and high blood sugar can lead to rapid arterial
damage, greatly accelerating the progression of atherosclerosis.
For this reason, diabetics and those with high blood pressure need to seek
regular medical care in order to manage their conditions.
Prognosis for those with atherosclerosis varies greatly depending on overall
health, age, response to treatment and severity of the disease. Over the past 30
years, better treatments and increased awareness have caused death rates from
atherosclerosis to fall by an estimated 25%. For most patients with moderate
disease, the damage of atherosclerosis can be slowed with appropriate therapy.
In fact, studies demonstrate improvement and a decreased risk of sudden
death after as little as a year and a half of therapy with cholesterol reducing
medications and improved lifestyle behavior.
For patients, with more advanced disease, prognosis depends on the location
of the damage, the extent of the disease and the success rate of the particular
procedure needed to treat the problem.
The first line of treatment for atherosclerosis is the alteration of a patient’s
diet and lifestyle. The same healthy diet, exercise routine and other lifestyle
alterations recommended to prevent atherosclerosis are useful in treating the
However, once symptoms are present, diet and lifestyle changes are usually
not sufficient for most patients.
When diet and lifestyle changes are insufficient, doctors have a number of
medications for the treatment of atherosclerosis. Cholesterol lowing medications,
such as statins, can reduce LDL and slow or reverse plaque build-up in the arteries.
Aspirin and other drugs that reduce blood clotting are often prescribed to
prevent new clots from forming. Blood pressure medications, such as diuretics,
beta blockers, calcium channel blockers and ACE inhibitors, can control blood
pressure and slow damage to the arteries.
Other medications, such as those that control diabetes, are also possibilities.
Doctors base each patient’s precise medication regimen on the individual’s health
profile, risk factors and the severity of the disease.
In some cases, atherosclerosis is so advanced that even medications are not
enough to treat the problem. Fortunately, several surgical procedures exist to treat
manifestations of this condition. These procedures include angioplasty, surgical
removal of fat from blocked arteries, injection of clot dissolving medication into
existing clots and bypass surgery.
The particular procedure recommended varies by the location of the clot, its
severity and the patient’s overall health.
Ultimately, the best cure for atherosclerosis is to avoid it altogether with an
improved, vitamin rich diet and regular low impact exercise.
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