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Friday, August 14, 2020

Atherosclerosis: Overview, Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

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Atherosclerosis is a condition that occurs when there is a build-up of plaque due to the deposits of fat in the arteries and other blood vessels. Generally, the blood vessels are thin-walled(tube-like) vessels that carry blood that contains oxygen and nutrients around the body.

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Because the space within these tube-like vessels is quite small and just enough for blood to pass through, any build-up by the sides of the wall will cause difficulties in blood flowing, and this is precisely what causes atherosclerosis.

Usually, your healthy blood vessels are elastic and flexible in nature. They can expand when there is an enormous blood flow and go back to its normal size after the blood flow. However, as we age, we tend to lose the elastic nature of our blood vessels.

Generally, the fact that we lose the elastic nature of our blood vessels as we age is normal. However, when there is a build-up of plaque within these blood vessels, it can also cause damage to these vessels and also causing a blockage to the blood flow to that organ.

As we get older, calcium, fat as well as cholesterol tend to start building up within our blood vessels resulting in the formation of a plaque. Once the plaque is formed within the blood vessels, especially the arteries, it causes a blockage, and as such, blood can’t flow normally into the other organs of the body.

In the body, there are arteries everywhere. If the arteries that supply major organs in the body, such as the kidney, the liver, heart, and so on, become blocked, then you have a huge problem. This blockage can result in you having a heart attack, kidney failure, heart failure, or even a stroke(either partial or complete).

Atherosclerosis is one of the most common problems we face as we age. In fact, according to a recent study, the majority of people who tend to have atherosclerosis are the elderly, who are between the ages of 40 and above.

Often, people interchange atherosclerosis and arteriosclerosis; however, these two don’t mean the same thing. While atherosclerosis means the blockage of the arteries, arteriosclerosis, on the other hand, means the hardening of the arterial walls causing It to lose its elasticity and flexibility.

Most times, doctors consider atherosclerosis is a problem that has to do with the heart. It is important to note that this condition is treatable and can also be prevented in many ways.

What are the Causes of atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is caused by the building up of plaque within the arteries. Plaque is formed by the combination of calcium, fat, and cholesterol deposits within the blood vessels.

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Hence, when there is the build-up of plaque in the arteries, it causes the obstruction of blood flow to the organs in the body.

The formation of plaque isn’t a one-time problem. Most times, little deposits have been dropped there, and over-time, they become an enormous blockade.

Also, over time due to the build-up of plaque in the arteries, the arteries may begin to harden as such most organs in your body begin to be deprived of oxygenated blood flow.

The following can cause your arteries to harden over time. They include:

1. High Cholesterol

Macroscopically, cholesterol is seen as that yellow waxy substance that is mostly seen occurring naturally in the body of all animals and also, in some food we eat. Humans generally need a healthy amount of cholesterol in the body to function.

This cholesterol often serves as a source of energy, especially when you have gone for an extended period without food. However, when this amount is exceeded in the body, it causes many problems. One of such problems is the clogging of the walls of the arteries.

Little amounts of cholesterol that has been dumped over time can lead to the formation of a hard plaque that can pose as a restriction of blood flow or cut off blood circulation entirely to the heart as well as other organs in the body.

2. Age

It is a well-known fact that as we age, some organs in the body tend to lose their capacity to work as hard as they used to when we were younger. The higher you go in age, the harder your heart, your blood vessels, and your other organs have to work.

If you aren’t helping your heart and your blood vessels by exercising regularly, over time, your heart and arteries will become weak from all the work it has to do and, as such, lose its elastic strength.

Once this occurs, it results in the easy formation of plaque in the heart and can invariably lead to atherosclerosis.

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3. Unhealthy diet

It is important to eat as we need a healthy diet to survive. However, it is more important to eat right and healthy. Unhealthy food has been one of the leading causes of obesity, atherosclerosis, as well as some other diseases.

According to the American Heart Association, it is recommended for us to keep a healthy heart functioning. We must be able to have the following in our diet and at a balanced proportion.

A wide range of fruits and vegetables

The importance of fruits and vegetables in our diet can’t be overemphasized. Asides the fact that it releases so many healthy chemicals in our body, it also helps strengthen our heart and also helps in reducing the build-up of plaque in our arteries.

Whole grains

It is important to eat whole grains as they help you develop healthy cholesterol as well as serve as a good source of energy.

Low-Fat dairy foods

Low-Fat dairy foods contain a healthy kind of fat, and that is what your body needs to function.

Nuts and legumes

This type of food also gives you a healthy boost in your cholesterol levels and helps you feel quite full on time, effectively helping you to cut back on your food intake.

Poultry and fish without skin

It is important to eat proteins to have a balanced diet. Poultry products such as chicken, Turkey, ducks, eggs, and so on are all excellent sources of protein. Eating of fish isn’t left out as well. However, when taking these foods, it is important or removes the skin before eating.

Research shows that the average skin of a chicken contains about 57% fat. Consuming that alone is enough cholesterol for three days. So, it is important that you have to remove the skin if you must go for poultry meat.

Olive oils and sunflower oil

Olives, as well as sunflower oil, are ultimately the best type of oil for you to use when cooking or frying. This is because they contain High-Density Lipoprotein(HDL), which is the good kind of cholesterol.

Also, according to the American Heart Association, about 60% of Americans consume large amounts of unhealthy foods, which puts them at risk of developing atherosclerosis as well as other heart-related diseases.

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Some of such unhealthy foods include:

1. Sugary foods and drinks

Foods such as candy, cakes, doughnut, and so on are not advisable for you as you grow older. According to AHA, all you need as a woman in a day are one to six teaspoons of sugar or 80-100 calories of sugar, and as a man, all you need is eight to nine teaspoons of sugar or no more than 150 calories of sugar in a day.

2. Super Salty foods

Salt is one food that is high in sodium, and when too much sodium is ingested, it can result in heart problems. The average amount of salt to be taken in a day is about 1,500mls a day. If you must take too much, you shouldn’t take more than 2,300mls in a day.

3. Fatty foods

Most fatty foods contain mostly trans fat. Trans fat is a type of fat that is rich in Low-Density Lipoproteins (LDL). Low-Density Lipoproteins are very bad for your health. If you must take fatty foods, choose foods that are rich in unsaturated fats. This is because unsaturated fats contain High-Density Lipoproteins, which is very good for your health.

Symptoms of atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis

One striking fact about atherosclerosis is that you may not experience any symptoms until there is a complete blockage of your arteries leading to no blood flow to the organ. Most times, people who suffer from atherosclerosis tend to have a stroke or a heart attack.

It is important to note that the signs of atherosclerosis are largely dependent on which of the arteries have been affected. For the purpose of this article, we will classify the signs based on where the plaque may be formed.

1. If the blockage is in your Coronary arteries(Coronary arteries are the arteries present in your heart):

  • Arrhythmias: which is characterized by unusual heart sounds.
  • Angina is often characterized by intense sharp pains in the arms, the chest, necks, as well as their jaw.

2. If the blockage is in any of the arteries that supply the brain, you may most likely experience the following:

  • Paralysis
  • Difficulty in seeing especially with the two eyes
  • Feelings of numbness and weakness in the patient’s hands and legs.
  • Difficulties in speaking to someone or understanding someone cogently enough.
  • Paralysis of the facial muscles leading to drooping face

3. If the blockage is in any of the arteries that supply either the arms, the legs, the pelvis or the kidneys:

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  • Kidney failure
  • Hypertension, which is characterized by the steady rise in blood pressure.

Diagnosis

If you have these symptoms and you are not sure what you have, it is better to visit the doctor immediately. The first thing your doctor will perform is a physical diagnosis. He will check for your pulse to detect if your pulse is normal, racing, or weakened.

Next, he will check for the presence of an aneurysm. An aneurysm is an abnormal bulging or stretching of an artery due to the weakened elasticity of the arterial wall. Also, your doctor might perform a healing test for you.

This test is to indicate how well your wound heals. If your injury is slow in healing, then you probably have a restriction in the flow of your blood. Also, your cardiologist will have to listen to your heart in order to see if you have any abnormal sounds.

It may mean that your arteries are blocked if you have some abnormal heart sounds such as a whooshing or a murmuring sound. Then he may require you to go for the following tests.

1. A blood test

This test is done in order to check for the level of cholesterol in your blood.

2. A Doppler Ultrasound

A Doppler ultrasound is a particular kind of imaging test that uses sound waves to show the picture of your arteries to see if there is any blockage and in case there is any, where it is located.

3. An Ankle Brachial Index (ABI)

This test is done specifically to look for any blockage in both your arms and thigh. Most times, the blood pressure is collected at these two places and then compared with each other.

4. A Magnetic Resonance Angiography(MRA)

A Magnetic Resonance Angiography test or a Computed Topography Angiography (CTA) is a scan that uses x-rays to make images of your large arteries. These images can help the doctor to identify if there is any blockage in your artery.

5. A Cardiac Angiogram

A Cardiac Angiogram is a type of chest x-ray that helps takes the images of organs in your chest(in this case, your heart) and helps the doctor identify if your coronary arteries have a problem.

Before this test is done, your doctor will have to inject a radioactive dye into your coronary arteries in order to get the best and clear images.

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6. Electrocardiogram

An Electrocardiogram popularly known as an ECG is a test that is carried out to measure the electrical activity of your heart and to detect any malfunctions or areas with a decreased amount of blood flow.

7. An Exercise Tolerance or Stress Test

An Exercise Tolerance or Stress Test is done to check for your heart rate as well as your blood pressure when exercising. This test is mostly done with the patient running on a treadmill or exercising while on a stationary bicycle.

Your doctor may require you to do a couple of these tests just to be sure that you have atherosclerosis. After confirming your diagnosis, then you will be required to go for treatment.

Treatment

Most times, the first type of treatment you will be required to undergo is basically a lifestyle change, as well as a change in eating habits. According to the American Heart Association, most people who have heart diseases live a sedentary lifestyle.

In other words, one of the first things your doctor will require of you is to start exercising more and eating less fatty foods. If your atherosclerosis is severe, your doctor may recommend other lines of treatment which includes:

1. Medications

There are certain drugs that can help in preventing atherosclerosis from getting worse. Such drugs include:

  • Statins and fibrates which specializes in reducing your cholesterol levels.
  • Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme(ACE) inhibitors: These drugs help to prevent your arteries from narrowing.
  • Beta-blockers or Calcium Channel blockers: These drugs effectively help to reduce your blood pressure
  • Diuretics: They are also known as water pills. They help to reduce your blood pressure.
  • Antiplatelet drugs and coagulants: These drugs help prevent the clotting of your blood and clog your arteries. An example of these drugs is aspirin. Doctors often recommend using aspirin for people who have a history of cardiovascular diseases, especially atherosclerosis.

According to the AHA, a regimen present in aspirin helps in reducing the risk of having another episode of a heart attack. If you don’t have any prior history of any cardiovascular disease, one can still easily use aspirin for preventive purposes.

If medicines aren’t effective, your doctors may recommend the second option, which is the use of Surgery.

2. Surgery

Surgery is usually the last resort. When the skin is severely damaged or if the muscle tissues are too adhered to and endangered, your doctor may recommend either one of the following surgeries.

Bypass Surgery

Bypass surgery is often done using the blood vessel from another part of your body or a tube that is synthetic in nature to divert the flow of blood from the narrowed or already blocked vessel.

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Thrombolytic therapy

This procedure is done by injecting a particular drug to dissolve the clot in the affected artery.

Endarterectomy

This procedure involves the use of surgical methods in removing fat deposits from the affected artery.

Atherectomy

This involves the use of a catheter that has a sharp end to scrap off the fat deposits in your arteries.

Angioplasty

This surgical process involves using a balloon and a catheter to expand the artery to allow for the free passage of blood. Sometimes, they may use a stent to help keep the artery open.

References;

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Disclaimer: This article is purely informative & educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.

Deborah Akinola
Wirter, poet and public speaker

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