What is Atherosclerosis? Causes, Diagnosis, & More 2022
Atherosclerosis is the build-up of plaque inside the arteries. Our blood vessels’ inner walls are lined with endothelial cells. When fat, cholesterol, and other substances combine with these cells, it becomes a plaque that blocks blood flow to your body. Endothelial dysfunction is what happens when your endothelial cells don’t function properly. This means that they can’t regulate the movement of fluids, gases, and immune system agents in and out of the blood vessels.
When this happens, fats, bacteria and leukocytes stay in your vessel walls for longer than normal and begin to cluster together. If you have atherosclerosis or if you’re at risk of developing it, you should take steps to reduce your risk as much as possible. Read on to learn more about atherosclerosis and how we can prevent it from occurring.
What are the Causes of Atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis develops in two stages: During the early stages, certain cells in your blood vessels become damaged, allowing them to become inflamed. Certain types of white blood cells (such as macrophages) that fight infection move in and start releasing substances that damage the endothelial cells lining your arteries and other blood vessels. In addition, fat and cholesterol particles build up inside the blood vessels, forming plaque. Over time, this plaque hardens and creates deposits that narrow the blood vessels and impede blood flow.
This can cause blood clots to form, cutting off blood flow in the heart and brain arteries. Atherosclerosis can also cause blood vessels to rupture and cause bleeding. There’s no one cause of atherosclerosis, but genetics, age, nutrition, smoking, and other lifestyle factors have been known to contribute to the disease.
People who are overweight or obese are at a higher risk of developing atherosclerosis. People who aren’t active and whose diets are high in fats and sugars are also at higher risk.
Risk Factors for Atherosclerosis
These risk factors are conditions that increase your risk of developing atherosclerosis. The more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to develop atherosclerosis.
- Age: Atherosclerosis is more common in older people. While younger people can get atherosclerosis, too, it’s less common.
- Gender: Atherosclerosis is twice as common in people who are male.
- Family history: If you have a history of atherosclerosis, you’re more likely to develop it yourself.
- Diet: A diet high in fats and sugars increases your risk of atherosclerosis.
- Lack of exercise: Not being active can lead to obesity, which has been linked to atherosclerosis.
- Smoking: Smoking is bad for your health in many ways and is associated with an increased risk of atherosclerosis.
- High blood pressure: High blood pressure is the leading cause of atherosclerosis.
- High cholesterol: Having high levels of cholesterol in your blood puts you at risk of atherosclerosis.
- Diabetes: People with diabetes are at a higher risk of atherosclerosis.
- Stress: People who experience a lot of stress may be more likely to develop atherosclerosis.
- Sleep: Getting enough sleep may lower your risk of atherosclerosis.
Symptoms of Atherosclerosis
Although atherosclerosis can prevent blood flow, it often won’t cause any symptoms. It’s important to pay attention to your health and see a doctor if you notice any of these symptoms.
1. Chest pain
Atherosclerosis can cause chest pain, also called angina. This can be experienced as a squeezing or burning pain under your breastbone. It can become more intense if you’re active and improve if you rest.
2. Shortness of breath
Atherosclerosis can cause a lack of oxygen in your blood, leading to shortness of breath.
Atherosclerosis can make you feel physically and mentally exhausted.
Atherosclerosis can lead to muscle pain and weakness.
5. Heart attack
Atherosclerosis can lead to a heart attack, which happens when plaque in your arteries suddenly ruptures and triggers a blood clot.
How to Identify Atherosclerosis
- Atherosclerosis mainly affects the blood vessels in your heart and brain. To identify atherosclerosis, a doctor may recommend a blood test or imaging tests such as a CT scan or MRI.
- A blood test can reveal whether you have high cholesterol, which is a symptom of atherosclerosis.
- An imaging test can show atherosclerosis in your blood vessels. This may be recommended if you have symptoms of atherosclerosis, a high risk of developing it or other risk factors.
Treatment for Atherosclerosis
Atherosclerosis is a chronic condition that cannot be cured. However, it can be treated and managed through lifestyle changes and medications.
Medications: Atherosclerosis can be treated with medications. These include:
Statins: These medications reduce cholesterol levels in your blood.
Endothelial function enhancers: These medications can repair damaged endothelial cells.
Other medications: Other medications may be prescribed to treat atherosclerosis, including
- Blood pressure medications
- Diabetes medications
- Anti-inflammatory medications
Surgery: Surgery may be an option for people with atherosclerosis who have serious complications or who don’t respond to medications.
An implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD): Some people with atherosclerosis will receive an ICD. This is a device that monitors your heart rhythm and delivers a shock if you’re at risk of having a heart attack.
A stent: A stent can open up arteries that are narrowed by atherosclerosis.
Prevention of Atherosclerosis
The best way to prevent atherosclerosis is to prevent its risk factors. You can do this by making healthy lifestyle changes and following a healthy diet.
Lifestyle changes: Making healthy lifestyle changes can help prevent atherosclerosis. Start by following a healthy diet and getting regular exercise.
Diet: A diet that’s high in fruits and vegetables and low in red meat and sugar can help prevent atherosclerosis.
Weight loss: Losing weight and staying at a healthy weight can prevent atherosclerosis.
Medications: Certain medications can help prevent atherosclerosis, such as statins and aspirin.
Atherosclerosis is the build-up of plaque inside the arteries. It mainly affects the blood vessels in your heart and brain. The best way to prevent atherosclerosis is to make healthy lifestyle changes and follow a healthy diet.