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Atherosclerosis

Updated 04.04.2022
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Arteries are the blood vessels that carry oxygen from the heart to the rest of the body. Atherosclerosis is a process in which substances build up in these arteries in the form of plaques, narrowing them and reducing their ability to transport oxygen to the cells that need it.  Plaques are made up of all the bad fats, cholesterol and other deposits and this can happen anywhere in your body - heart, brain, kidneys, eyes etc. Occasionally plaque can break off and travel to cause an obstruction or blockage of other vessels causing a clot. A combination of the above events can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Atherosclerosis is associated with ageing but occurs due to high cholesterol, poor diet and lifestyle over long periods of time. 

What are the symptoms of atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is seen as a precursor to more serious problems. The symptoms begin when a blockage occurs in the vessel, and the symptoms experienced depend on the vessel being blocked. For example, with a heart attack, you may experience chest pain that may radiate to the arm, neck or jaw, difficulty breathing, sweating, nausea and vomiting, dizziness and tummy pain. If the blockage is to the vessels to the brain, you may experience symptoms of a stroke such as facial drooping, difficulty speaking, seeing or walking. Headaches, confusion and difficulty understanding and processing what has been said.  You may experience pain at the site where there is a blockage as well as generalised weakness, and fatigue. If any of these symptoms occur, it is a medical emergency and you should call an ambulance and attend your local accident and emergency department as soon as possible.

Which lifestyle changes help treat and prevent atherosclerosis?

Dietary changes are very important to treat and prevent atherosclerosis. Avoiding foods that are high in saturated fats and bad cholesterol, as well as avoiding highly processed foods. Eating oily fish twice a week and increasing your fruit and vegetable intake is always a good thing to do. Exercising at least 20 minutes of moderate exercise a day and reducing the amount you drink and stopping smoking are also important. Managing stress is also really important as that can increase the inflammatory process in your vessels.

What can my doctor do?

As well as the above lifestyle methods discussed above, your doctor may suggest certain treatments. Depending on the risk factors identified there are different medications that your doctor may discuss. Statins are cholesterol-lowering medications, and are commonly prescribed when risks from raised cholesterol pass a certain point. A medication group called ACE inhibitors help reduce artery narrowing and can be used in blood pressure treatment, along with other medications like diuretics and calcium channel blockers. Medications such as aspirin and blood thinners can prevent clots from occurring and blocking your arteries.  Aspirin is sometimes used as a medication to prevent serious events from happening but it is important to only start the medication if you have been properly risk assessed by your doctor to ensure the risks of taking aspirin (such as increased bleeding) outweigh the benefits.  In some cases, surgery may be required to remove a large plaque blockage, improve the narrowing of the arteries by expanding it or diverting the blood elsewhere to improve the flow. 

What diseases am I most at risk of?

High cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, diabetes and smoking all increase the progression of atherosclerosis. This puts you at increased risk of heart disease, like angina and heart attacks, strokes, peripheral arterial disease (poor circulation in the legs) and types of dementia. 

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