Arteriosclerosis occurs when the blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients from your heart to the rest of your body (arteries) become thick and stiff. They end up restricting blood flow to your organs and tissues. Healthy arteries are flexible and springy, but over time the walls of your arteries can harden, a condition commonly referred to as hardening of the arteries.
Atherosclerosis is a specific type of arteriosclerosis, but the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Atherosclerosis refers to the buildup of fats, cholesterol, and other substances in and on your arterial walls (plaque), which can restrict blood flow. The plaque may burst, generating a blood clot. Although atherosclerosis is often thought of as a heart problem, it can affect arteries anywhere in your body. Atherosclerosis can be preventable and treatable.
Atherosclerosis develops gradually, it usually has no symptoms. You usually won’t have symptoms of atherosclerosis until an artery becomes so narrowed or clogged that it can’t supply enough blood to your organs and tissues. Sometimes a blood clot completely blocks blood flow, or even breaks open and can trigger a heart attack or stroke.
Symptoms of moderate to severe atherosclerosis depend on the arteries affected. For example :
– If you have atherosclerosis in the heart arteries, you may have symptoms, such as chest pain or pressure (angina pectoris).
– If you have atherosclerosis in the arteries leading to your brain, you may have signs and symptoms such as sudden numbness or weakness in your arms or legs, difficulty speaking or slurred speech, temporary loss vision in one eye, or muscle loss in your face. These signal a transient ischemic attack (TIA), which, if left untreated, can progress to a stroke.
– If you have atherosclerosis in the arteries of the arms and legs, you may have symptoms of peripheral arterial disease, such as leg pain when walking (claudication).
– If you have atherosclerosis in the arteries leading to your kidneys, you are developing high blood pressure or kidney failure.
When to consult a doctor
If you think you have atherosclerosis, talk to your doctor. Also watch out for early symptoms of inadequate blood flow, such as chest pain (angina pectoris), leg pain, or numbness.
Early diagnosis and treatment can keep atherosclerosis from getting worse and prevent a heart attack, stroke, or other medical emergency.
Development of atherosclerosis
Atherosclerosis is a slow, progressive disease that can begin in childhood. Although the exact cause is unknown, atherosclerosis can begin with damage to the inner layer of an artery. Damage can be caused by:
- – High blood pressure
- – High cholesterol
- – High triglycerides, a type of fat (lipid) in your blood
- – Smoking and other sources of tobacco
- – Insulin resistance, obesity or diabetes
- – Inflammation caused by diseases such as arthritis, lupus, infections, or inflammation of unknown cause
Once the inner lining of an artery is damaged, blood cells and other substances often clump together at the site of injury and accumulate in the inner lining of the artery.
Over time, fatty deposits (plaque) made of cholesterol and other cellular products also build up at the injury site and harden, narrowing your arteries. The organs and tissues connected to the blocked arteries then do not receive enough blood to function properly.
Eventually, pieces of the fatty deposits can break off and enter your bloodstream.
Also, the smooth plaque lining can rupture, spilling cholesterol and other substances into your bloodstream. This can cause a blood clot, which can block blood flow to a specific part of your body, such as when blocked blood flow to your heart causes a heart attack. A blood clot can also travel to other parts of your body, blocking the flow to another organ.
Atherosclerosis risk factors
Hardening of the arteries occurs over time. Besides aging, factors that increase the risk of atherosclerosis include:
- – High blood pressure
- – High cholesterol
- – Diabetes
- – Obesity
- – Smoking and other uses of tobacco
- – Family history of early heart disease
- – Lack of exercise
- – Unhealthy diet
Complications of atherosclerosis depend on blocked arteries. For example :
– Coronary disease. When atherosclerosis narrows the arteries near your heart, you can develop coronary artery disease, which can cause chest pain (angina pectoris), heart attack, or heart failure.
– Disease of the carotid artery. When atherosclerosis narrows the arteries near your brain, you can develop carotid artery disease, which can cause transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke.
– Disease of the peripheral arteries. When atherosclerosis narrows the arteries in your arms or legs, you may develop circulation problems in your arms and legs called peripheral arterial disease. This can make you less sensitive to heat and cold, increasing your risk of burns or frostbite. In rare cases, poor circulation in the arms or legs can cause tissue death (gangrene).
– Aneurysms. Atherosclerosis can also cause aneurysms, a serious complication that can occur anywhere in your body. An aneurysm is a bulge in the wall of your artery. Most people with aneurysms have no symptoms. Pain and throbbing in the area of an aneurysm can occur and is a medical emergency. If an aneurysm bursts, you can face life-threatening internal bleeding. Although usually a sudden and catastrophic event, a slow leak is possible. If a blood clot in an aneurysm becomes dislodged, it can block an artery at a distant point.
– Chronic kidney disease. Atherosclerosis can cause the arteries leading to your kidneys to narrow, preventing oxygenated blood from reaching them. Over time, this can affect your kidney function, preventing waste from leaving your body.
The same healthy lifestyle changes recommended to treat atherosclerosis also help prevent it. These include:
- – Stop smoking
- – Eat healthy foods
- – Exercising regularly
- – Maintain a healthy weight
Remember to make changes one step at a time, and keep in mind which lifestyle changes are most manageable for you in the long run.