Atherosclerosis comes from the Greek word – athere that means porridge and skleros meaning hardening. These words conjure up an image in our minds of exactly what happens when atherosclerosis develops in the arteries. The plaque that forms and blocks up the arteries are made of atheroma. This is a mixture of cholesterol, fibrous tissue, dead muscle cells, platelets and sometimes calcium. Over the years this plaque gets bigger and bigger, reducing the blood flow and oxygen supply to the body’s tissue. Atherosclerosis can affect arteries anywhere in the body, but most life threatening is when it blocks up the heart arteries or the arteries supplying blood and oxygen to the brain.
No artery in the body is safe from atherosclerosis and may effect the heart causing heart disease as the coronary vessels are easily blocked
• the brain, causing a stroke
• the legs, causing poor circulation (peripheral vascular disease) resulting in possible gangrene
• the intestine, causing sections to die.
There are often no early symptoms of athersclerosis, the first perhaps being a heart attack. It is vital therefore that you are aware of the risk factors and make lifestyle changes where possible to minimize your risk of atherosclerosis and other associated conditions. There are two categories of factors for atherosclerosis, those you can change and those you cannot.
Factors you cannot change are:
Age – As you get older the greater the risk of developing heart disease
Ethnicity – Some ethnic groups are more high risk suffering from atherosclerosis than others
Genetic inheritance – The health of your cardiovascular system and atherosclerosis often runs in families
Gender – Men are more likely to suffer from atherosclerosis, as women produce oestrogen, which protects them against the development of atheroma.
The risks even out once women stop producing oestrogen
Diabetes – Diabetics are high risk as atherosclerosis is associated with high cholesterol levels. In diabetes, the fatty plaques develop much quicker, but with well-controlled glucose levels the risk is lessened. Another factor that is just as important to control is high blood pressure.
Factors that you can change are:
Smoking – Smoking cigarettes promotes atheroma forming within the arteries
High blood pressure – The risk of developing atherosclerosis increases with hypertension
High blood cholesterol level – Research has found that continued high cholesterol levels in the blood increases the risk of atherosclerosis
Obesity – Poor cardiovascular health in general and more risk in developing atherosclerosis are linked to obesity
Inactivity – Regular physical exercise will lower the risk of atherosclerosis
Cholesterol levels can be kept low by eating plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, high fibre foods and cutting down on animal fats found in full-cream milk, cheese, eggs and red meat. A person with very high cholesterol levels will probably take cholesterol lowering drugs as well as eating a low-fat diet. Recent studies have shown that these drugs improve the long-term risk of developing heart disease.
A person is never too young to worry about atherosclerosis as it can start even before you were born. It can also be present for years before it causes any symptoms – so the earlier you make changes the better for the future outcome.
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