Atherosclerosis is the usual cause of heart attacks, stroke and vascular disease. All these sum up what is called “cardiovascular disease.” Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer in America, with more than 800,000 deaths in 2005.
But how does atherosclerosis develop? Who gets it, and why? This deadly process is preventable and treatable. Read on, and get to know who this enemy is.
First, let’s do a bit of anatomy here. Arteries are blood vessels that carry blood from the heart through the body. They’re lined by a thin layer of cells called the endothelium. The endothelium works to keep the inside of arteries toned and smooth, which is needed to keep blood flowing.
According to experts, atherosclerosis begins with damage to the endothelium caused by high blood pressure, smoking or high cholesterol. This damage leads to the formation of plaque.
When bad cholesterol, or LDL, crosses the damaged endothelium, the cholesterol enters the wall of the artery. That causes your white blood cells to stream in to digest the LDL. Over the years, the accumulating mass of cholesterol and cells becomes a plaque in the wall of the artery.
Plaque is a jumble of cholesterol, cells, and debris that creates a bump on the artery wall. As atherosclerosis progresses, that bump gets bigger. And when it gets big enough, it can create a blockage thereby preventing blood flow. That process goes on throughout your entire body. As a result, not only is your heart at risk but you are also at risk for stroke and other kinds of health problems.
Figure above shows a normal artery with normal blood flow. Figure B shows an artery with plaque buildup.
Atherosclerosis usually causes no symptoms until middle or older age. But as narrowing become severe, they choke off blood flow and can cause pain. Blockages can also suddenly rupture, causing blood to clot inside an artery at the site of the rupture.
SO WHO GETS ATHEROSCLEROSIS?
Atherosclerosis starts early. In autopsies of young American soldiers killed in action in the Korean and Vietnam wars, half to three-quarters had early forms of atherosclerosis.
Even today, a large number of asymptomatic young people have evidence of atherosclerosis. A 2001 study of 262 apparently healthy people’s hearts may surprise you:
- 52% had some atherosclerosis.
- Atherosclerosis was present in 85% of those older than 50.
- 17% of teenagers had atherosclerosis.
No one had symptoms, and very few had severe narrowing in any arteries. This was very early disease, detectable only by special tests. (courtesy of WebMD)
Developing atherosclerosis is dependent of age. If you are 40 and generally healthy, you have about a 50% chance of developing serious atherosclerosis in your lifetime. The risk goes up as you get older. The majority of adults older than 60 have some atherosclerosis but often do not have noticeable symptoms.
There is however some good news in terms of the prominence of death rates. Death rates from atherosclerosis have fallen by 25% since 30 years ago. This is so thanks to both better lifestyles and improved treatments.
Atherosclerosis is progressive, but can also prevented. For example, nine risk factors are to blame for up to 90% of all heart attacks:
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Abdominal obesity(“spare tire”)
- Not eating fruits and vegetables
- Excess alcohol intake (more than one drink for women, one or two drinks for men, per day)
- Not exercising
You may notice all of these have something in common: You can do something about them! Experts agree that reducing your risk factors leads to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
For people at moderate or higher risk — those who’ve had a heart attack or stroke, or who suffer angina — taking a baby aspirin a day can be important. Aspirin helps prevent clots from forming. Ask your doctor before starting daily aspirin, as it can have side effects
Once a blockage has developed, it’s generally there to stay. With medication and lifestyle changes, though, plaques may slow or stop growing. They may even shrink slightly with aggressive treatment.
- Lifestyle changes:Reducing the lifestyle risk factors that lead to atherosclerosis will slow or stop the process. That means a healthy diet, exercise, and no smoking. These lifestyle changes won’t remove blockages, but they’re proven to lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
However, you are advised to see doctor once you notice any change or difficulty with breathing or your health in general.
Save a life today