Atherosclerosis

Danger level: High

What is it?

Atherosclerosis (the word comes from Greek, where “athero” means gruel or paste and “sclerosis” means hardness) is a process in which the arteries get clogged, putting you at risk for heart attacks, strokes and loss of blood circulation to your legs, intestines or kidneys.

Who gets it?

Anyone can get atherosclerosis. But there are risk factors which can put you at a greater risk of getting it. Some of them you can take care of, but some of them are inherent and can’t be changed:

  1. Cigarette smoking and exposure to tobacco smoke
  2. High blood pressure
  3. High blood cholesterol – Cholesterol has different forms. One of those is LDL cholesterol (also known as “bad cholesterol”). When it’s high you’re at a greater risk of developing atherosclerosis. The other is HDL cholesterol – this one is known as the “good cholesterol”. When this one is low you’re at risk of developing atherosclerosis.
  4. Diabetes
  5. Family history of having a heart disease in an early age – If you have a parent or sibling who had disease in the arteries of the heart (as opposed to other heart diseases) at an early age, you might be at a greater risk. What’s an early age? It’s usually before age 55 if it’s a man and 65 if it’s a woman.
  6. Age – If you’re a man over 45 or a woman over 55 you are at a greater risk.
  7. Obesity
  8. Physical inactivity – If you spend most of the time sitting and not doing any exercise you are at a greater risk.
  9. An improper diet – If what you eat contains a lot of saturated fats, cholesterol and trans fats (you can see that on the nutrition data labels on the foods you eat) you’re at a greater risk.

What causes it?

Our arteries contain a few layers, as can be seen in this picture:

 

 

The artery and its layers. Drawing by Stijn Ghesquiere

The outer layer is called the endothelium. Each of the risk factors listed above can cause damage to the endothelium. Once the endothelium is damaged, cholesterol invades the area and starts accumulating there. The white blood cells in our blood enter those areas to digest the bad cholesterol so that it won’t accumulate. Over time, those cells and the cholesterol together (along with other debris) accumulate as a mass, which is called a plaque. This created a bump in the wall of the artery.

This bump grows over time, reducing the flow of blood through the artery.

The following video shows this process in action –

 

How does it feel?

Atherosclerosis itself isn’t “felt”. Your arteries can get blocked to a certain degree and you will not feel the process. That is, until something happens.

That thing, as mentioned above, can be a stroke, something in other organs, or (the reason for this article) blockage of the arteries in your heart. This can lead to one of two things:

  1. Angina pectoris
  2. Myocardial infarction (“heart attack”)

In the upcoming parts we’ll discuss these two.

How is it discovered?

We will talk about how you can get diagnosed in the upcoming parts.

How is it treated?

Usually, until something develops as a result of the artery’s blockage, the condition isn’t treated. It can, however, be prevented, which is the most important thing you can do about it. Read ahead for that.


The bottom line – How do I avoid it?

There are 6 steps to lower your chance of developing atherosclerosis:

  1. Avoid smoking – We featured an article before about the benefits and ways you can stop smoking.
  2. Monitor your blood pressure – If you don’t know your blood pressure, visit your doctor to find out. If you do have a high blood pressure, they can recommend ways to lower it.
  3. Eat foods low in cholesterol and saturated fats – This article from the American Heart Association can help you choose the right foods.
  4. Be physically active – You can find more information on how to start here. Getting regular exercise can raise your “good cholesterol”.
  5. Maintain a healthy weight – The best way to start is by calculating your BMI. Your BMI (or Body Mass Index) can tell you if you’re in a healthy weight range or not. You can calculate yours here. A BMI of 18.5-25 is considered normal. If you’re between 25-30 you’re considered overweight. Above 30 is considered obese.
  6. Have regular medical exams

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