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What is atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis causes plaque to collect in your arteries. (Plaque is made of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other things naturally found in your blood. Arteries are blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body.) The plaque hardens, making your arteries narrow. Sometimes arteries become completely blocked with plaque. This limits how much blood can flow to the rest of your body.
Atherosclerosis is the primary cause of cardiovascular disease. It’s a slow disease that may get worse as you get older. It’s sometimes called “hardening of the arteries.”.
Many people don’t know they have atherosclerosis until they have a medical emergency caused when blood can’t get through the arteries. This can cause chest pain, breathing difficulties, and stroke. Some people also have issues with their kidneys, intestines, and legs.
CAUSES & RISK FACTORS
What causes atherosclerosis?
Healthcare providers don’t know exactly what causes atherosclerosis. It may first develop when the inner layers of your arteries become damaged. Many things can cause this damage, including:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Overweight or obesity
- Smoking and tobacco use
- Unhealthy diet
- Lack of exercise
- Family history of heart disease
How is atherosclerosis diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will talk with you about your family history. They may also do a physical exam. This exam may include listening to your heart. Certain sounds may indicate you have a problem with blood flowing through your arteries. Your healthcare provider also may check your pulse in your leg or foot. This will show them how well your blood is traveling through your arteries. If they feel a weak pulse or no pulse in one of those areas, it may mean you have a blocked artery.
Your healthcare provider may order tests to check for atherosclerosis. These may include:
- This uses dye and X-rays to show the inside of your arteries.
- Blood tests. These check what is in your blood, including cholesterol.
- Chest X-ray. This takes a picture of the inside of your chest.
- CT scan. This takes digital pictures of your heart.
- Electrocardiogram (EKG). This test checks the beats and rhythm of your heart.
- Stress test. This monitors your heart as you exercise.
Can atherosclerosis be prevented or avoided?
An important way to prevent atherosclerosis is by living a healthy lifestyle. Maintain a healthy weight, eat a balanced diet, and exercise. These changes may help you lose weight (if necessary), lower your LDL “bad” cholesterol, increase your HDL “good” cholesterol, and lower your blood pressure. They may also help control your blood sugar, which is important if you have diabetes.
If you smoke, stop smoking. This is the most important step you can take to decrease your risk of atherosclerosis.
Your healthcare provider has a way to calculate your risk of developing atherosclerosis based on your age, sex, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and other factors. If you’re at higher risk, your healthcare provider may recommend you take a statin. Statins are medicines that slow down your body’s production of cholesterol. They also remove cholesterol buildup from your arteries
Your healthcare provider will likely recommend lifestyle changes, such as a healthy diet and exercise, to treat atherosclerosis. If those don’t work, they may prescribe medicines to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
If you have severe atherosclerosis or have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, your doctor may recommend a procedure to open your blocked arteries or surgery to go around (bypass) the blockage
Living with atherosclerosis
Living a healthy lifestyle can lower your risk of atherosclerosis.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet. A heart-healthy diet includes a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and “good” fats.
- Exercise can help you lose weight if you’re overweight or obese and also helps raise your HDL and lower your LDL cholesterol levels. Try to work up to 30 minutes of moderate-level activity, 4 to 6 times a week. Make sure you contact your healthcare provider before starting an exercise plan.
- Quit smoking. Smoking can damage your blood vessels, reduce the flow of blood through blood vessels, and lower your HDL cholesterol levels. Even exposure to second-hand smoke can affect your blood vessels and cholesterol. Contact your healthcare provider about developing a plan to help you stop smoking.
- Manage stress. Try to reduce your stress levels. Ways to deal with stress include deep breathing and relaxation techniques such as meditation, gentle exercise such as walking or yoga, and talking with a friend, family member or health care provider about your problems.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Heart and Stroke Canada