What is Arteriosclerosis, Hardening of the Arteries?
Written by Mike Cohen
Monday, 05 October 2009
Arteriosclerosis refers to fatty deposits formed under the inner lining of the blood vessels. The walls of the vessels become thick and less elastic. The thickened areas are called plaque.
What is going on in the body?
Arteriosclerosis occurs when fatty substances, cholesterol, cellular waste products, calcium, and other materials build up on the inside lining of the arteries. The buildup is more likely to be in parts of the artery that have been injured. It usually occurs where the artery bends or branches. Once plaque builds up, it may cause the cells in the artery lining to make chemicals that cause more plaque buildup.
Two problems can result from the plaque.
- First, the blood vessel can become narrow, preventing blood flow to the area served by the artery. For example, if an artery to the heart becomes 80% to 90% blocked, a person can develop chest pain.
- Second, the plaque can rupture and send a blood clot streaming through the artery. A blood clot that goes to other parts of the body is called an embolus. The embolus can be deposited in a smaller area of the artery or in another artery, completely cutting off the blood supply. This blockage can cause a heart attack, stroke, pulmonary embolus, or other serious medical problem.
What are the causes and risks of the disease?
There are several factors that increase a person's risk of developing arteriosclerosis, such as:
- cigarette smoking and secondhand smoke
- high blood cholesterol, especially a high level of LDL, the bad carrier for cholesterol
- high blood pressure
- high levels of triglycerides in the blood
- increased age
- lack of exercise
- male gender
What are the treatments for the disease?
Treatment of arteriosclerosis focuses on lowering a person's coronary risk factors. Lowering blood cholesterol, controlling high blood pressure, and stopping smoking can stabilize plaque. However, these steps may not reverse the process.
A low dose of aspirin taken on a regular basis seems to reduce the development of atherosclerosis and plaque.
Arteriosclerosis that progresses far enough to cause symptoms may require surgery. Surgery can remove or bypass plaque in the arteries that supply the brain, heart, kidneys, or legs. Angioplasty is a procedure in which a small balloon is inserted into an area of plaque. Then the balloon is inflated. When the balloon is deflated and removed, the opening within the artery is larger. This improves the blood supply.
What are the side effects of the treatments?
Medicines used to treat medical conditions may cause allergic reactions. Surgery carries a risk of bleeding, infection, and allergic reaction to anesthesia.
What happens after treatment for the disease?
Most people who have atherosclerosis are encouraged to begin a regular exercise program. A person who has arteriosclerosis should make every effort to reduce coronary risk factors. This may include smoking cessation, control of chronic diseases and conditions, and a diet for preventing heart disease. Medicines may need to be adjusted to achieve the best response.