Atherosclerosis is a condition that involves a gradual buildup of fats and cholesterol in the arteries. This is caused by fatty materials that collect along the artery walls and harden into a substance called plaque. This syndrome may affect any arterial blood vessel in the body, but is most commonly associated with the coronary arteries. As the plaque builds upon itself, it slowly narrows the diameter of the artery, increasing blood pressure and contributing to other cardiovascular disorders. Atherosclerosis is a type of arteriosclerosis although the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably.
Arteriosclerosis is a normal part of the aging process during which the arteries narrow and lose elasticity. Atherosclerosis is a further complication of the condition which results from a combination of genetic, medical and dietary factors. There are several risks for patients with atherosclerosis. Not only is circulation impaired by the narrowing of the arteries themselves, but there is a danger that a piece of plaque will break off and travel to clog an artery supplying a vital organ. This may occur suddenly and result in serious tissue damage or death.
Risks Factors for Developing Atherosclerosis
Atherosclerosis develops silently; no symptoms may be perceived by the patient until it reaches a critical level. It is important, therefore, to observe the individual risks of developing atherosclerosis based upon the National Institutes of Health's prescribed list. Risks for developing atherosclerosis may include:
- Family history
- Obesity, sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy diet
- High blood pressure
- High blood cholesterol
Age is also a factor, as the risk is higher for women over the age of 55 and men over the age of 45. Substance abuse, stress, high triglyceride count and other physiological problems have also been shown to correlate with increased incidence of atherosclerosis.
Diagnosis of Atherosclerosis
A doctor performs a thorough series of tests and observations to determine if the individual has atherosclerosis. These usually include a physical examination and several of the following diagnostic tests:
- Blood test
- Ankle-brachial index
- Stress test
An electrocardiogram, a test that records the heart's electrical activity, may also be performed.
Treatment of Atherosclerosis
Treatment for atherosclerosis varies depending on the severity of the case. The easiest and least invasive method is a re-evaluation of the patient's lifestyle and overall health. For some patients, lifestyle changes such as: developing healthier eating habits, living a more active lifestyle, managing stress, and avoiding smoking and illegal drug use, may be the only treatment required. Many medications may be prescribed to combat atherosclerosis, including:
- Anti-platelet medications
In more severe cases, surgical intervention may be utilized as soon as possible. Procedures like angioplasty, bypass grafting, or endarterectomy can remove or reshape the plaque in order to reduce or eliminate the threat of dangerous blood clots.