Symptoms, risk factors and management of atherosclerosis


August 16, 2017

What is atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is the hardening and narrowing of the arteries; it silently and slowly blocks arteries, putting blood flow at risk. Fatty material called atheroma builds up in the lining of artery walls and with time, it leads to narrowing of the arteries. 

Over time, it can grow bigger until the arteries become so narrow that they can’t let enough blood through. Its the usual cause of angina, heart attacks, strokes and peripheral vascular disease; together, they are called cardiovascular disease.

Symptoms of Atherosclerosis

Most people with atherosclerosis don’t know that they have it until they get symptoms like angina or have a heart attack or stroke.

Angina

Angina occurs when the heart muscle does not get enough blood and there is pain or discomfort in the chest.

Heart attack

If the fatty material breaks down and a blood clot forms, it can completely block arteries and cut off the supply of blood to the heart, which is known as having a heart attack.

Stroke

A stroke occurs when enough blood can’t get to the brain. If the blood supply is limited for a short time, this can cause a mini-stroke (called transit ischemic attack). If the fatty material breaks down and a blood clot forms, it can completely block the artery.

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD)

PAD occurs when enough blood can’t get to the leg muscles. Patients experience pain in calves, hips, buttocks and thighs and this usually happens during walking or exercising.

Risk factors of atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis is very common. The risk factors for developing atherosclerosis are the same as those for other types of cardiovascular disease. It’s more common in the elderly and those with a family history of heart or circulatory disease. The risk also grows with the following: Smoking, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, being overweight or obese and not physically active.

Can Atherosclerosis be treated?

Atherosclerosis can’t be stopped and current treatments can’t reverse it. But there are medicines and other treatments that can slow down its progress and lower the chances of having a heart attack or stroke.

It is important for individuals who are over 40 years of age to have regular health check-ups mainly for the risk factors as well as the risk of having a heart attack or stroke in order to consider treatment.

Patients with risk factors might require medications which lower blood pressure and blood sugar as well as medications which prevent clots and inflammation that lead to a heart attack and stroke.

It is also important for the patients to follow heart-healthy lifestyle changes which includes heart healthy eating, aiming for a healthy weight, managing stress, physical activity and quiting smoking.