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 elastic, but over time, the walls of your arteries can harden, a situation 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 accumulation of fat, cholesterol and other substances in and on your arterial walls (plaque), which can restrict blood circulation. The plaque may burst, causing a blood clot to form. Although atherosclerosis is often considered a heart problem, it can affect the arteries anywhere in your body. Atherosclerosis can be prevented and treated.
Atherosclerosis develops gradually, it usually has no symptoms. You will usually have no symptoms of atherosclerosis until an artery is so narrow or clogged that it cannot supply enough blood to your organs and tissues. Sometimes a blood clot completely blocks blood flow, or even breaks, and can trigger a heart attack or stroke.
Symptoms of moderate to severe atherosclerosis depend on the affected arteries. For example:
– If you have atherosclerosis in your heart arteries, you may experience symptoms such as chest pain or pressure (angina).
– 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 speech problems, temporary loss vision in one eye, or falling muscles in your face. These report a transient ischemic attack (TIA), which, if left untreated, can lead to a stroke.
– If you have atherosclerosis in the arteries in your arms and legs, you may experience symptoms of peripheral arterial disease, such as pain in the legs while walking (claudication).
– If you have atherosclerosis in the arteries leading to your kidneys, you develop high blood pressure or kidney failure.
When to see a doctor
If you think you have atherosclerosis, talk to your doctor. Also pay attention to the first symptoms of inadequate blood flow, such as chest pain (angina pectoris), leg pain, or numbness.
Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent 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 wall of an artery is damaged, blood cells and other substances often clump together at the site of injury and build up in the inner wall of the artery.
Over time, fatty deposits (plaque) made of cholesterol and other cellular products also build up at the site of injury and harden, narrowing your arteries. Organs and tissues connected to blocked arteries then do not receive enough blood to function properly.
Eventually, pieces of fatty deposits can break and enter your bloodstream.
In addition, the smooth lining of the plaque 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, just as it does when blocked blood flow to your heart causes a heart attack. A blood clot can also move to other parts of your body, blocking the flow to another organ.
Risk factors for atherosclerosis
Arteries harden over time. In addition to 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 eating
Complications of atherosclerosis depend on blocked arteries. For example:
– Coronary heart disease. When atherosclerosis narrows the arteries near your heart, you may develop coronary heart disease, which can cause chest pain (angina pectoris), a heart attack, or heart failure.
– Carotid artery disease. When atherosclerosis narrows the arteries close to your brain, you may develop carotid artery disease, which can cause a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or a 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, which increases 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 palpitations in the area of an aneurysm can occur and is a medical emergency. If an aneurysm breaks out, you could face life-threatening internal bleeding. Although this is usually a sudden and catastrophic event, a slow leak is possible. If a blood clot in an aneurysm is dislodged, it can block an artery at a distant point.
– Chronic kidney disease. Atherosclerosis can cause the arteries in 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 recommended healthy lifestyle changes to treat atherosclerosis also help prevent it. These include:
- – Quit smoking
- – Eat healthy foods
- – Exercise regularly
- – Maintain a healthy weight
Remember to make changes one step at a time, and keep in mind which lifestyle changes are best for you in the long run.
Do you like our content?
Receive our latest publications every day for free and directly in your inbox