Helping to Prevent Atherosclerosis
Atherosclerosis means a hardening and narrowing of the arteries, the blood vessels that carry blood from the heart.
Atherosclerosis occurs when cholesterol, fat, calcium, and other substances build up as plaque in artery walls. Hard plaque can make a blood vessel stiff and narrow and limit blood flow. Soft plaque can break off and block a blood vessel elsewhere in the body.
Atherosclerosis is a slow, progressive disease that may start in childhood, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) says. It can affect the arteries not only of the heart, but also of the brain, kidneys, arms, and legs. Depending in on the location of the plaque, atherosclerosis can lead to serious diseases and complications.
A stroke results when plaque, or a clot forming on plaque, blocks an artery that carries blood to the brain. Heart attacks occur when plaque, or a clot forming on plaque, blocks the blood supply to the heart muscle. Arteries damaged by plaque can restrict blood flow to the legs, causing claudication--pain when walking.
Are you at risk?
Because atherosclerosis often takes years to develop, risk tends to rise as you age. In men, risk increases after age 45; in women, risk increases after age 55. If your father or brother was diagnosed with heart disease before age 55, or your mother was diagnosed before age 65, you also may be more likely to develop atherosclerosis.
Age and family history aren't the only risk factors. Smoking makes atherosclerosis worse and helps it progress faster, so it's one of the major risk factors. High cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, physical inactivity, and diabetes are other very significant factors.
"Most people don't realize how serious atherosclerosis is," says Elisabeth von der Lohe, M.D., a cardiologist and board member of the American Heart Association.
And, many people don't even know that they have the condition until a complication arises. That's why it's so important to act on risk factors before a blockage occurs.
Five ways to take action
Keeping your arteries clear can help make serious complications less likely. "And, the more risk factors you can control, the better the outcome," says Dr. von der Lohe.
You can’t change risk factors such as age, genetics or gender, but you can change other factors.
Making one type of healthy change may help you address several risk factors:
1. If you use tobacco, quit. "This is one of the most critical steps to take," says Dr. von der Lohe. Stopping tobacco use cuts the risk of heart disease by 50 percent.
Make a list of reasons you should quit, then read it several times a day. Make a point to smoke fewer cigarettes over time and set a quit date. On that day, toss all your cigarettes and lighters, or smokeless tobacco. And, don't forget to talk with your doctor. He or she can give you information on how to stay tobacco-free. Or, call your nurse information service, if you have access to one.
2. Get moving. "Avoiding a sedentary lifestyle is so important," says Dr. von der Lohe. "Walking for 30 minutes every day at a pace of three to four miles an hour may reduce the risk of heart disease by about 30 percent." It also may help you manage your weight.
If you can't set aside 30 minutes for exercise, take three 10-minute walks instead. To stay motivated, ask a friend to join you and track your progress. Another way to get the recommended amount of exercise is by using a pedometer and walking at least 10,000 steps a day. Be sure to talk with your doctor before starting any exercise program.
3. Watch what you eat. Food plays an important role in managing several conditions that increase the risk for atherosclerosis, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. So, the best eating plan is one that's low in saturated fat and high in fruits and vegetables (at least five servings a day).
Controlling portion sizes also is a priority. To get a clearer picture of your current diet, keep a journal of what you eat for one week. Then, start fine-tuning your eating habits. Keep single servings of fruits and vegetables on hand to make it easier to grab a healthy snack. Leave a few bites of food on your plate at every meal. And, buy low-fat or nonfat dairy products and lean meats. Making fiber and soy a daily part of your diet also may help you control your cholesterol.
4. Have regular checkups. Ask your doctor how often you should have your blood pressure and cholesterol measured. Routine screenings are the only way to find out if your lab values are normal. Bring up your health history and that of your family, too. It will help your doctor give you appropriate advice on lifestyle changes and possible treatments.
5. Take care of chronic conditions. If you already have diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels, you still can limit the effect that these conditions have on your arteries. Stick with the healthy lifestyle choices listed here and take your medications as prescribed. Also, work with your doctor to control these health risks. Some people prefer to start making several healthy lifestyle changes all at once.
The combination works
If you already have atherosclerosis, it's important to follow your doctor's advice on treatment. Your treatment can include the lifestyle changes listed above, medication and special procedures or surgery, the NHLBI says.
A combination of lifestyle changes—losing weight, getting more exercise, quitting smoking—and medication often works the best at reducing the symptoms and preventing complications of atherosclerosis.
Medications may include drugs to lower your cholesterol or high blood pressure and drugs that prevent clots from forming.
Special procedures you may need include coronary angioplasty/stenting, which opens up blocked or narrowed arteries; coronary bypass surgery, which uses arteries from other areas of the body to reroute blood around the blocked heart arteries; carotid artery surgery, which removes plaque from the artery in the neck; and leg artery bypass surgery, which reroutes blood around the blocked leg vessels.