What do you know about Atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis - hardening and narrowing of the arteries - gets a lot of bad press, with good reason. This progressive process silently and slowly blocks arteries, putting blood flow at risk.

Atherosclerosis is the usual cause of heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral vascular disease - what together are called "cardiovascular disease." Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer in America, with more than 900,000 deaths last year.

How does atherosclerosis develop? Who gets it, and why? Atherosclerosis is a mouthful, but it doesn't need to be a mystery. This deadly process is preventable and treatable. Read on, and get to know your enemy.

How It Happens

First, an Anatomy 101 review:Arteries are blood vessels that carry blood from the heart throughout the body. They're lined by a thin layer of cells called the endothelium. The endothelium works to keep the inside of arteries toned and smooth, which keeps blood flowing.

"Atherosclerosis starts when high blood pressure, smoking, or high cholesterol damage the endothelium," says Richard Stein, MD, national spokesperson for the American Heart Association. "At that point, cholesterol plaque formation begins."

Cholesterol invasion. Bad cholesterol, or LDL, crosses damaged endothelium. The cholesterol enters the wall of the artery.

Plaque formation. Your white blood cells stream in to digest the LDL cholesterol. Over years, the accumulating mess of cholesterol and cells becomes a plaque in the wall of the artery.

"It's a jumble of lipids, or cholesterol, cells, and debris, and it creates a bump on the artery wall," explains Stein. As the process of atherosclerosis continues, "the bump gets bigger." A big enough bump can create a blockage.

Atherosclerosis tends to happen throughout the body. "So if you have plaque in your heart, you're at a higher risk for stroke, and vice versa," says Stein.

Atherosclerosis usually causes no symptoms until middle or older age. Once narrowings become severe, they choke off blood flow and can cause pain. Blockages can also suddenly rupture, causing blood to clot inside an artery.

Plaque Attacks

Plaques from atherosclerosis can behave in different ways.

* They can stay within the artery wall. There, the plaque grows to a certain size and stops. "Because they don't block blood flow, these plaques may never cause any symptoms," says Stein.

* They can grow in a slow, controlled way into the path of blood flow. Eventually, they cause significant blockages. Pain on exertion (in the chest or legs) is the usual symptom.

* The worst-case scenario: plaques can suddenly rupture, allowing blood to clot inside an artery. In the brain, this causes a stroke; in the heart, a heart attack.

The plaques of atherosclerosis cause the three main kinds of cardiovascular disease:

* Coronary artery disease: Stable plaques in the heart's arteries cause angina (chest pain on exertion). Sudden plaque rupture and clotting causes heart muscle to die. This is a heart attack, or myocardial infarction.

* Cerebrovascular disease: Ruptured plaques in the brain's arteries causes strokes, with the potential for permanent brain damage. Temporary blockages in an artery can also cause transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), which are warning signs of stroke; however, there is no brain injury.

* Peripheral artery disease: Narrowing in the arteries of the legs caused by plaque. Peripheral artery disease causes poor circulation. This causes pain on walking and poor wound healing. Severe disease may lead to amputations.

Who Gets It

It might be easier to ask, who doesn't get atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis starts early. In autopsies of young American soldiers killed in action in the Korean and Vietnam wars, half to three-quarters had early forms of atherosclerosis.

And what about today, with our salads and StairMasters? A 2001 study of 262 apparently healthy people's hearts may surprise you:

* 51.9% had some atherosclerosis

* Atherosclerosis was present in 85% of those older than 50

* 17% of teenagers had atherosclerosis

No one had symptoms, and very few had narrowings in any arteries. This was very early disease, detectable only by special tests.

If you are 40 and generally healthy, you have about a 50% chance of developing serious atherosclerosis in your lifetime. The risk goes up as you get older. The majority of adults older than 60 have some atherosclerosis but often do not have noticeable symptoms.

There is good news. Rates of death from atherosclerosis have fallen by 25% since 30 years ago. This is thanks to both improved treatments and better lifestyles.

Between heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral vascular disease, though, atherosclerosis still causes more than 900,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Diseases caused by atherosclerosis are the most common cause of death in the U.S.

How to Prevent It

Atherosclerosis is progressive, but it's also preventable. For example, nine risk factors are to blame for up to 90% of all heart attacks:

* Smoking

* High cholesterol

* High blood pressure

* Diabetes

* Abdominal obesity ("spare tire")

* Stress

* Not eating fruits and vegetables

* Excess alcohol intake (more than one drink for women, one or two drinks for men, per day)

* Not exercising regularly

You may notice all of these have something in common: You can do something about them! Experts agree that reducing your risk factors leads to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

For people at moderate or higher risk -- those who’ve had a heart attack or stroke, or who suffer angina -- taking a baby aspirin a day can be important. Aspirin helps prevent clots from forming. Ask your doctor before starting daily aspirin, as it can have side effects.
Atherosclerosis: Treatment

Once a blockage is there, it's generally there to stay. With medication and lifestyle changes, though, plaques may slow or stop growing. They may even shrink slightly with aggressive treatment.

* Lifestyle changes: Reducing the lifestyle risk factors that lead to atherosclerosis will slow or stop the process. That means a healthy diet, exercise, and no smoking. These lifestyle changes won't remove blockages, but they’re proven to lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

* Medicines:Taking medication for high cholesterol and high blood pressure will slow and perhaps even halt the progression of atherosclerosis, as well as lower your risk of heart attacks and stroke.

Using invasive techniques, physicians can also open up blockages from atherosclerosis, or go around them:

* Angiography and stenting: Cardiac catheterization with angiography of the coronary arteries is the most common angiography procedure performed. Using a thin tube inserted into an artery in the leg or arm, doctors can access diseased arteries. Blockages are visible on a live X-ray screen. Angioplasty (catheters with balloon tips) and stenting can often open up a blocked artery.

* Bypass surgery: Surgeons "harvest" a healthy blood vessel (often from the leg or chest). They use the healthy vessel to bypass a segment blocked by atherosclerosis.

These procedures involve a risk of complications. They are usually saved for people with significant symptoms or limitations caused by atherosclerosis.

What’s Your Personal Risk

When it comes to developing health risks from atherosclerosis, some people are at higher risk than others. But because atherosclerosis is silent until it's advanced, estimating one's health risk takes some educated guesswork.

How can you determine your risk? The risk factors are easy to identify. You can use the same tools your doctor uses to learn where you stand.

Your Atherosclerosis Health Risk: The Heart of the Matter

The best system for estimating atherosclerosis health risk considers complications relating to the arteries of the heart. Atherosclerosis in the heart is called coronary artery disease.

Although this strategy will only determine your risk for atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries of the heart, there are good reasons to start there:

* Atherosclerosis in one area usually means atherosclerosis is present elsewhere.

* Coronary artery disease is life-threatening: A first heart attack can occur without warning and be fatal.

To get started, first consider your medical history. If you've had one of these medical conditions, you most likely have atherosclerosis:

* Angina pectoris (heart-related chest pain)

* History of a stroke or heart attack

* Blockages in the carotid arteries (in the neck)

* Peripheral artery disease

These conditions are considered evidence of atherosclerosis. People with diabetes are also at high risk of developing the health risks associated with atherosclerosis. Guidelines for treating cholesterol in people with diabetes assume that atherosclerosis is already present.

Next, tally your risk factors for atherosclerosis:

* Family history of heart attacks in your immediate family

* High "bad" cholesterol (LDL level)

* Low "good" cholesterol (HDL level)

* Current smoking

* High blood pressure (140/90 or greater)

Be sure to share the information with your doctor.

The best estimates of atherosclerosis risk come from the Framingham Heart Study. Researchers have followed thousands of men and women and their children for more than 40 years.

Physicians sometimes use a tool to calculate atherosclerosis risk, based on the Framingham study. You can access this risk calculator yourself at:


The American Heart Association has a similar tool, available at:


You'll need some information, including your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The Framingham calculator provides your 10-year risk of having a heart attack or dying from heart disease.

Based on your Framingham risk, you'll fit in one of three categories:

Low risk: Less than a 10% risk of having a heart attack in the next 10 years. No further testing or treatment is needed, if you have no symptoms. You should reduce your risk even further with diet, exercise, blood pressure control, and smoking abstinence.

Moderate risk: A 10% to 20% risk of having a heart attack in the next 10 years. Here's the gray area. In addition to the healthy lifestyle improvements listed above, you may need additional treatment to lower cholesterol. Your doctor may recommend further testing to look for possible blockages in your heart.

Higher risk: Greater than 20% risk of having a heart attack in the next 10 years. Watch out: it's time to take atherosclerosis very seriously. You and your doctor should have an aggressive plan to reduce your risk factors. You probably should have a test to look for blockages.

Source from WebMD



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