Learn about the symptoms, causes and treatment for hardening of the arteries.
Arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis are sometimes used to mean the same thing, but there's a difference between the two terms.
Arteriosclerosis occurs when the blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients from your heart to the rest of your body (arteries) become thick and stiff — sometimes restricting blood flow to your organs and tissues. Healthy arteries are flexible and elastic, but over time, the walls in your arteries can harden, a condition commonly called hardening of the arteries.
Atherosclerosis is a specific type of arteriosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis is the buildup of fats, cholesterol and other substances in and on your artery walls. This buildup is called plaque. The plaque can cause your arteries to narrow, blocking blood flow. The plaque can also burst, leading to a blood clot.
Although atherosclerosis is often considered a heart problem, it can affect arteries anywhere in your body. Atherosclerosis can be treated. Healthy lifestyle habits can help prevent atherosclerosis.
Mild atherosclerosis usually doesn't have any symptoms.
You usually won't have atherosclerosis symptoms until an artery is so narrowed or clogged that it can't supply enough blood to your organs and tissues. Sometimes a blood clot completely blocks blood flow, or even breaks apart and can trigger a heart attack or stroke.
Symptoms of moderate to severe atherosclerosis depend on which arteries are affected. For example:
If you think you have atherosclerosis, talk to your doctor. Also pay attention to early symptoms of inadequate blood flow, such as chest pain (angina), leg pain or numbness.
Early diagnosis and treatment can stop atherosclerosis from worsening and prevent a heart attack, stroke or another medical emergency.
Atherosclerosis is a slow, progressive disease that may begin as early as childhood. Although the exact cause is unknown, atherosclerosis may start with damage or injury to the inner layer of an artery. The damage may be caused by:
Once the inner wall of an artery is damaged, blood cells and other substances often clump at the injury site and build up in the inner lining of the artery.
Over time, fatty deposits (plaque) made of cholesterol and other cellular products also build up at the injury site and harden, narrowing your arteries. The organs and tissues connected to the blocked arteries then don't receive enough blood to function properly.
Eventually, pieces of the fatty deposits may break off and enter your bloodstream.
In addition, the smooth lining of the plaque may rupture, spilling cholesterol and other substances into your bloodstream. This may cause a blood clot, which can block the blood flow to a specific part of your body, such as occurs when blocked blood flow to your heart causes a heart attack. A blood clot can also travel to other parts of your body, blocking flow to another organ.
Hardening of the arteries occurs over time. Besides aging, factors that may increase your risk of atherosclerosis include:
The complications of atherosclerosis depend on which arteries are blocked. For example:
Aneurysms. Atherosclerosis can also cause aneurysms, a serious complication that can occur anywhere in your body. An aneurysm is a bulge in the wall of your artery.
Most people with aneurysms have no symptoms. Pain and throbbing in the area of an aneurysm may occur and is a medical emergency.
If an aneurysm bursts, you may face life-threatening internal bleeding. Although this is usually a sudden, catastrophic event, a slow leak is possible. If a blood clot within an aneurysm dislodges, it may block an artery at some distant point.
The same healthy lifestyle changes recommended to treat atherosclerosis also help prevent it. These include:
Just remember to make changes one step at a time, and keep in mind what lifestyle changes are manageable for you in the long run.
Your doctor will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your personal and family health history. You may be referred to a doctor that specializes in heart diseases (cardiologist).
Your doctor may hear a whooshing sound (bruit) when listening to your arteries with a stethoscope.
Lifestyle changes, such as eating a healthy diet and exercising, are the first treatment for atherosclerosis — and may be all that you need to treat your atherosclerosis. But sometimes, medication or surgical procedures may be needed.
Many different drugs are available to slow — or even reverse — the effects of atherosclerosis. Here are some medications used to treat atherosclerosis:
Statins and other cholesterol medications. Aggressively lowering your low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol — the bad cholesterol — can slow, stop or even reverse the buildup of fatty deposits in your arteries.
Statins are commonly prescribed to lower cholesterol, improve artery health and prevent atherosclerosis. There are many other types of cholesterol-lowering medications. Another common type is a cholesterol absorption inhibitor called ezetimibe (Zetia). You may need more than one type of cholesterol medication.
Sometimes more aggressive treatment is needed to treat atherosclerosis. If you have severe symptoms or a blockage, your doctor may recommend one of the following surgical procedures:
Lifestyle changes can help you prevent or slow the progression of atherosclerosis.
Exercise most days of the week. Regular exercise improves blood flow, lowers blood pressure, and reduces your risk of conditions that increase the risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease.
Aim to exercise at least 30 minutes most days of the week. If you can't fit it all into one session, try breaking it up into 10-minute intervals.
You can take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk around the block during your lunch hour, or do some situps or pushups while watching television.
Eat healthy foods. A heart-healthy diet full of fruits, vegetables and whole grains — and low in refined carbohydrates, sugars, saturated fat and sodium — can help you control your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.
Try substituting whole-grain bread in place of white bread. Grab an apple, a banana or carrot sticks as a snack. Read nutrition labels as a guide to control the amount of salt and fat you eat. Use monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, and reduce or eliminate sugar and sugar substitutes.
If you have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes or another chronic disease, work with your doctor to manage the condition and promote overall health.
It's thought that some foods and herbal supplements can help reduce your high cholesterol level and high blood pressure, two major risk factors for developing atherosclerosis. With your doctor's OK, you might consider these supplements and products:
Talk to your doctor before adding any of these or other supplements to your atherosclerosis treatment. Some supplements can interact with medications, causing harmful side effects.
You can also practice relaxation techniques, such as yoga or deep breathing, to help you relax and reduce your stress level. These practices can temporarily reduce your blood pressure, reducing your risk of developing atherosclerosis.
If you think you may have atherosclerosis or are worried about having atherosclerosis because of a strong family history of heart disease, make an appointment with your doctor to have your cholesterol level checked.
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment and know what to expect from your doctor.
Preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time with your doctor. For atherosclerosis, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Don't hesitate to ask any other questions you have.
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, including:
It's never too early to make healthy lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, eating healthy foods and getting more exercise. These are simple ways to protect yourself against atherosclerosis and its complications, including heart attack and stroke.
July 15th, 2021