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Atherosclerosis: The Silent Killer

Written by
Dr. Vasantha K S
and medically reviewed by iCliniq medical review team.

Published on May 19, 2018 and last reviewed on Jul 20, 2020   -  5 min read

Abstract

Abstract

Atherosclerosis is a coronary artery disease that is statistically the No. 1 killer. It is a silent disease, causing us no symptoms, and when it does, it can be life-threatening. Read this article to know how you can prevent this deadly disease.

Atherosclerosis: The Silent Killer

What Does the Word Atherosclerosis Mean?

The word 'athero' means paste and 'stenosis' means to harden. So, atherosclerosis is the hardening of deposits formed inside the blood vessels, gradually building up to obstruct the blood flow in the vessel, and eventually, restricting the blood flow completely.

When the arteries get older, calcium, fats, and cholesterol accumulate in them and form plaque. This plaque buildup makes it difficult for the blood freely in the arteries. Atherosclerosis can occur in any artery of the body, such as legs, heart, and kidneys.

This narrowing of the blood vessel results in a lack of blood and oxygen to various parts of the body. If left untreated, plaque can break off, resulting in a blood clot, which can lead to a heart attack, stroke, etc. This condition can be prevented and can be treated effectively in most cases.

Are Atherosclerosis and Arteriosclerosis the Same?

Arteriosclerosis is when blood vessels carrying oxygen and nutrients from the heart to the body become thick and hardened, while the healthy ones are elastic and flexible. This restricts blood flow to the organs and tissues. Atherosclerosis, a type of arteriosclerosis, is when the arteries of the heart become narrow due to plaque buildup. This plaque can get dislodged at any time and can trigger a blood clot.

What Are the Causes of Atherosclerosis?

In a healthy person, the innermost lining of the arteries is smooth and elastic. But, in persons with risk, the layer is damaged. This attracts the bad cholesterol to build up in the artery wall, forming plaques. The white blood cells (WBC) in the blood react to this by invading the area to ingest the LDL cholesterol. During this process, some of the WBC get adhered to the plaque, making it bigger and more dangerous. Thus, the lumen (space in the artery) is narrowed, until it affects blood flow to the concerned organ.

Also, a chunk of the plaque can dislodge from the site and get carried by the bloodstream to get deposited elsewhere, causing blocks there. This site can be anywhere in the body, however far from the place of its origin.

Risk Factors:

  1. High cholesterol.

  2. Aging.

  3. Consuming a diet rich in fat.

  4. Smoking.

  5. Lack of physical activity.

  6. Family history of CVD (cardiovascular diseases).

  7. Hypertension.

  8. Diabetes.

  9. Being overweight or obese.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Atherosclerosis?

Unfortunately, there are no symptoms felt until there is a full-fledged block. This is why this disease is also called a silent killer. Depending on the location of the artery, symptoms can vary as follows.

  • Chest pain.

  • Chest discomfort.

  • Weakness.

  • Difficulty in breathing.

  • Confusion.

  • Leg pain.

  • Numbness.

  • Excessive sweating.

  • Lightheadedness.

  • Loss of balance.

  • A sudden headache.

  • Difficulty in speech.

  • Trouble understanding speech.

These are also the signs and symptoms of a heart attack and stroke, so get immediate medical care if you experience such symptoms.

How Is Atherosclerosis Diagnosed?

The doctor will first perform a physical examination, where they will listen to the arteries, breathing sounds, and check if your pulse is normal, weak, or absent. Then, the doctor might order some of the following tests:

  1. Blood tests - To check the levels of cholesterol and blood sugar.

  2. Chest X-ray - To detect signs of heart failure.

  3. CT scan or magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) - This looks for narrowed arteries.

  4. EKG (electrocardiogram) - It records the electrical activity of the heart.

  5. Stress test - Here, your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing are monitored while you exercise.

  6. Angiogram - The doctor checks the patent of arteries by injecting a dye into the arteries. Then the arteries are viewed on an X-ray.

  7. Ankle-brachial index - This test compares the blood pressures in the arm and lower leg.

What Are the Treatment Options for Atherosclerosis?

Depending on the severity, treatment options can be one of the following as suggested by your doctor.

I. Lifestyle modification

  • Limit intake of unhealthy fats.

  • Restrict salt in the diet.

  • Exercise regularly.

  • Eat healthy, high-fiber foods.

  • Manage weight.

  • Stop alcohol consumption.

II. Medications - Medicines that prevent plaque buildup are prescribed by the doctor, to be taken long-term. Depending on the case, drugs such as:

  • Statins - to lower cholesterol.

  • Antiplatelet and anticoagulants drugs - to prevent blood from clotting and blocking the arteries.

  • ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) inhibitors - to prevent arteries from getting narrow.

  • Beta-blockers and calcium channel blockers - to lower blood pressure.

  • Diuretics - to lower blood pressure.

III. Surgery - More severe cases require surgical intervention in the form of:

  • Angioplasty - a catheter is used to widen your arteries with the help of a balloon.

  • Stenting - in some cases, after angioplasty is done, a stent is placed to keep the artery patent.

  • Endarterectomy - the doctor surgically removes fat deposits from the artery.

  • Bypass surgery - a vessel is taken from somewhere else in the body, which is used to divert blood from around the artery that is blocked.

  • Thrombolytic therapy - a drug injected into the artery to dissolve the blood clot.

  • Atherectomy - a catheter with a blade is used to remove plaque buildup.

What Are the Possible Complications of Atherosclerosis?

If left untreated, atherosclerosis can possibly lead to cardiovascular disease (CVD). The different types of CVD are:

  1. Angina - It is short episodes of dull or heavy chest pains that result from coronary heart disease.

  2. Heart attacks - The blood supply to the heart gets blocked, resulting in sudden chest pain, which radiates to the jaws, arms, shortness of breath, and dizziness.

  3. Coronary heart disease - The coronary arteries, which are the main arteries that supply the heart, get clogged.

  4. Transient ischaemic attack (TIA) - It results in temporary symptoms similar to a stroke.

  5. Peripheral arterial disease - The blood supply to the legs is blocked.

  6. Strokes - The blood supply to the brain gets interrupted, resulting in slurred speech and one-sided face droop, and weakness.

Atherosclerosis is more common than we think. It stays silent in most of us. But, once symptoms appear, it is already too late. It is a dangerous condition that can be prevented with healthy habits. Start now, and do what you can to keep your heart healthy.

To know about ways to prevent atherosclerosis and its complications, talk to a cardiologist through phone or video consultation now!

 

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Frequently Asked Questions


1.

Can Atherosclerosis Be Cured?

Medical treatment for atherosclerosis is multi-factorial. Drastic lifestyle and dietary changes should be made to keep atherosclerosis from getting severe. Some medications are prescribed to reduce the symptoms and increase your level of comfort. It can relieve some particular symptoms like chest paid.

2.

Can You Live a Long Life With Atherosclerosis?

A normal life with atherosclerosis is only possible to a small extent. Depending on the location of plaques deposits, several health reports say that atherosclerosis can lead to coronary heart diseases. This occurs when blood flow is restricted to the heart muscle.

3.

Are There Any Signs of Clogged Arteries?

Yes, there are signs of clogged arteries. The warning signs are:
- Shortness of breath.
- Chest pain.
- Weakness or dizziness.
- Heart palpitations.
- Sweating.
- Nausea.

4.

What Are the Stages of Atherogene?

Atherogenesis are divided into five essential steps, which are
- Endothelial dysfunction,
- Formation of lipid layer or fatty streak within the intima,
- Migration of leukocytes and smooth muscle cells into the vessel wall,
- Foam cell formation and
- Degradation of the extracellular matrix.

5.

Can You Feel Atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis will develop gradually. Symptoms are not revealed for mild atherosclerosis. Usually, atherosclerosis symptoms are not shown until an artery is clogged or narrowed that it can not supply sufficient blood to tissues and organs.

6.

What Are the Warning Signs of Atherosclerosis?

The warning signs of atherosclerosis are:
- Angina.
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath.
- Pain in your arm, leg, and anywhere else that blocked artery.
- Confusion. It occurs due to the blockage in the circulation to your brain.
- Fatigue.
- Muscle: Weakness in your legs due to lack of circulation.

7.

Can I Reverse Atherosclerosis?

Medical treatment, lifestyle, and dietary changes are used to keep atherosclerosis from getting worse. But, they are not able to cure the disease. Some medications are prescribed to increase your comfort, particularly if you are having leg or chest pain as a symptom.

8.

What Is the Best Drink to Lower Cholesterol?

Pomegranate juice has antioxidants at higher levels compared to other fruit juices. It has three times the amount of antioxidants as red wine or green tea does. These antioxidants provide several heart-protecting benefits, including reducing bad cholesterol (Low-Density Lipoprotein).

9.

How Can I Unclog My Arteries Naturally Fast?

The ways to unclog the arteries naturally are:
- Take a heart-healthy diet.
- Add more unsaturated fats to your diet. They are called good fats.
- Cut back on sugar.
- Cut fatty meat and dairy to reduce unsaturated fat. Try to have more
- plant-based meals.
- Enhance fiber intake.
- Artificial sources of trans fats must be eliminated.

10.

What Foods Dissolve Plaque in Arteries?

The below-mentioned foods can cleanse the arteries. They are:
- Avocado - Avocado helps reduce the "bad" cholesterol and increase the "good cholesterol" that clears the arteries.
- Asparagus - This is one of the best foods to cleanse the arteries.
- Fatty Fish.
- Broccoli.
- Olive Oil.
- Nuts.
- Turmeric.
- Watermelon.
- Whole Grains
- Spinach

Last reviewed at:
20 Jul 2020  -  5 min read

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