What is atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis is a disease of blood vessels. In this condition, the innermost layer of the blood vessels (endothelium) is constricted by the deposition of fat, calcium and cellular debris. Atherosclerosis leads to the narrowing of the artery, which in turn reduces the flow of blood passing through it. The reduced blood flow results in a depletion of the amount of oxygen and nutrients reaching the affected part of the body.
Atherosclerosis can lead to further complications such as:
- Coronary heart disease: Build-up of the fatty substance (plaque) in the arteries supplying blood to the heart.
- Angina: Chest pain due to reduced blood flow to the heart muscles.
- Carotid artery disease: Plaque in the arteries that supply blood to the brain. These are situated in the neck.
- Peripheral artery disease: Plaque in the arteries that supply blood to the legs.
- Chronic kidney disease
What is the difference between atherosclerosis and arteriosclerosis?
Arteriosclerosis is a broader term for the condition in which the arteries narrow and harden, leading to poor circulation of blood throughout the body.
Atherosclerosis is a specific kind of arteriosclerosis, but these terms are often used interchangeably. Both conditions lead to decreased blood flow to other parts of the body.
What are the main causes of atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis is a progressive disease, which may either start in childhood or late adulthood. The exact cause of atherosclerosis is still unknown; however, plaque formation begins when there is damage to the endothelium of the artery. Some of the most common factors which are more likely to cause this damage are:
Other risk factors include:
- Diabetes mellitus
- Lack of exercise
- Sex (men are more prone)
- Family history of increased cholesterol
What are the signs and symptoms of atherosclerosis?
Early atherosclerosis does not present any symptoms. Symptoms may appear once the artery starts to become narrower. Symptoms may occur depending on the arteries that are affected. The various symptoms are:
- Chest pain
- Vision problems
- Speech problems
- Pain in legs or feet
- Difficulty walking
How is atherosclerosis diagnosed?
Early diagnosis of atherosclerosis is important to prevent further complications. The physician evaluates the medical history and looks for the symptoms to diagnose atherosclerosis. Tests depend on the arteries that are affected. The various tests which help in diagnosing atherosclerosis are:
- Cardiac catheterization
- Ultrasonography examination
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- Doppler (especially lower limbs)
How is atherosclerosis treated?
The treatment approach of atherosclerosis involves:
- Controlling risk factors
- Controlling blood pressure, blood sugar levels and cholesterol levels
- Smoking cessation
Medications which are effective in lowering cholesterol levels include:
Antiplatelet medications can be used to prevent blood from clotting or clogging arteries.
Antihypertensive medications such as diuretics or angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (ACEI) may be used to control blood pressure.
Which lifestyle changes help treat and prevent atherosclerosis?
Lifestyle changes help treat as well as prevent atherosclerosis. The lifestyle changes that can be helpful include: