Atherosclerosis is a condition involving thickening of the arterial vessel wall, due to build up of fatty material such as cholesterol. Here the fatty material collects along the walls of arteries. This fatty material thickens, hardens(forms calcium deposits), and may eventually block the arteries. Eventually, the plaques can make the artery narrow and rigid, making it harder for blood to flow. Atherosclerosis can affect many different organ systems, including the heart, lungs, brain, intestines, kidneys, and limbs(extremities). As a result, different diseases may develop based on which arteries are affected.
The excess cholesterol, calcium and fat in the blood stream get deposited in the vessel wall. The depositions are called plaques. The formation of plaques(raised patches) in the inner lining of the arteries, causes narrowing of the arteries. These plaques consist of low-density lipoproteins(LDL – bad cholesterol), decaying muscle cells, fibrous tissue, clumps of platelets, cholesterol, and calcium. They tend to form in regions of turbulent blood flow and are found most often in people with high levels of cholesterol in the blood.
Possible complications of atherosclerosis include Coronary heart disease, Damage to organs (such as the kidneys, brain, liver, and intestines), Heart attack, Stroke, Too little blood to the legs and feet resulting in gangrene, Transient ischemic attack(TIA)
Unfortunately, atherosclerosis produces no symptoms until the damage and narrowing of the arteries are severe enough to restrict blood flow. Restriction of blood flow to the heart muscle due to atherosclerosis of the coronary arteries can cause angina(chest pain) or a myocardial infarction(a heart attack). Restriction of blood flow to the muscles of the leg causes intermittent claudication(pains in the legs brought about by walking and relieved by rest). Narrowing of the arteries supplying blood to the brain may cause transient ischemic attacks(symptoms and signs of stroke lasting less than 24 hours) and episodes of dizziness, or ultimately, to a stroke itself. There are many more presentations depending on the site of occlusion.
Atherosclerosis is a lead on to many a life threatening conditions. Thus the early detection of atherosclerosis can be a life saver. The main investigative evidence pointing towards atherosclerosis are Ankle/brachial index (ABI), Aortic arteriography, Arteriography, Cardiac stress testing, Carotid duplex, CT scan, Doppler study, Intravascular ultrasound(IVUS), Magnetic resonance arteriography(MRA), Mesenteric arteriography, Pulmonary angiography, Renal arteriography. Arteriography involves introduction of a contract material into the concerned artery and visualizing the narrowing or occlusion. The other add on investigations include estimations of blood sugar, blood cholesterol and blood pressure monitoring
The best methods of preventing atherosclerosis are identification and prompt follow up of the risk factors. These include
Life style changes
Avoid fatty foods. Eat well-balanced meals that are low in fat and cholesterol. Include several daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Adding fish to your diet at least twice a week may be helpful. However, avoid eating fried fish. Control alcohol consumption to minimum or even abstain. Exercise regularly for 30 minutes a day if you are not overweight, and for 60 – 90 minutes a day if you are overweight.
Regular health check ups
Get your blood pressure checked atleast once in a year, especially if high blood pressure runs in the family. Have your blood pressure checked more often if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, or any other risk factors. Everyone should keep their blood pressure below 140/90 mmHg. The presence of any risk factors will necessitate more meticulous control of blood pressure. If high blood pressure is detected, medication has to be started and prompty controlled.
Have your cholesterol checked and treated if it is high. Adults should have their cholesterol checked every 5 years. If you are being treated for high cholesterol or if high cholesterol; runs in family, you will need to have it checked more often. Levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol should be below the safe margin. Few medications have been found to clear up plaque. Statins and other cholesterol-lowering drugs can help prevent more plaque from forming. Blood glucose level should be checked atleast once a year and more often if with risk factors. Diet modification, oral hypoglycemic drugs or insulin therapy can be instituted depending on the bloods sugar levels.
A number of procedures are performed to help prevent the complications of atherosclerosis. Other physical treatments, helpful in the short term, include minimally invasive angioplasty procedures that may include stents to physically expand narrowed arteries and major invasive surgery, such as bypass surgery, to create additional blood supply connections that go around the more severely narrowed areas.
Patients at risk for atherosclerosis-related diseases are increasingly being treated prophylatically with low-dose aspirin and a statin. Medical treatments often focus predominantly on the symptoms. The treatments which focus on decreasing the underlying atherosclerosis processes, as opposed to simply treating the symptoms, are more effective.
Better treatments have reduced the number of deaths from atherosclerosis-related diseases. These treatments also have improved the quality of life for people with these diseases. Still, the number of people diagnosed with atherosclerosis remains high. You may be able to prevent or delay atherosclerosis and the diseases it can cause, mainly by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This, along with ongoing medical care, can help you avoid the problems of atherosclerosis and live a long, healthy life.