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 aging but occurs due to high cholesterol, poor diet, and lifestyle over long periods.
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 radiating to the arm, neck, or jaw, difficulty breathing, sweating, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, and tummy pain. Suppose the blockage is to the vessels of the brain. In that case, you may experience stroke symptoms 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 generalized weakness and fatigue. If any of these symptoms occur, it is a medical emergency, and you should call 911 or have someone drive you to the nearest emergency department as soon as possible.
Dietary changes are very important to treat and prevent atherosclerosis, such as 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.
Getting at least 20 minutes of moderate exercise a day and reducing the amount of alcohol you drink, and stopping smoking are also important. Managing stress is also very important as that can increase the inflammatory process in your vessels.
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 to prevent serious events from happening, but it is important to only start the medication if you have been properly risking 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 or to improve the narrowing of the arteries by expanding them or diverting the blood elsewhere to improve the flow.
High cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking all increase the progression of atherosclerosis. This puts you at increased risk of heart diseases, like angina and heart attacks, strokes, peripheral arterial disease (poor circulation in the legs), and types of dementia.
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