It probably started in childhood: Healthy, clear arteries that transported oxygen-rich blood to the heart and organs slowly started to harden.
The American Heart Association explains that while some hardening is normal in healthy individuals, when plaque builds up along artery walls — a type of heart disease called atherosclerosis — blood flow to key organs may eventually become restricted. This can lead to severe health events such as heart attack and stroke.
Living healthy with atherosclerosis is possible, though, and it's important.
Atherosclerosis: The basics
Plaque, which is made up of fat, cholesterol and other substances, narrows the arteries and makes blood clots more likely to form. It can lead to a partial or complete blockage of an artery.
Depending on where plaques are found, the National Institutes of Health reports that atherosclerosis can lead to:
- Coronary heart disease, which occurs when blood flow is restricted to the heart muscle.
- Carotid artery disease, which occurs when the arteries on the side of the neck have plaques.
- Peripheral artery disease, which occurs when there's a blockage in a major artery that brings blood to the legs, arms and pelvis.
- Chronic kidney disease, which occurs when blood flow in the renal arteries is restricted.
In most cases, atherosclerosis shows no symptoms until something serious happens, such as a stroke or heart attack. In some cases, though, atherosclerosis may cause warning symptoms, such as:
- Angina, or chest pain, that feels like chest pressure, indigestion or pain in the shoulders, arms, back, neck or jaw.
- Shortness of breath and an irregular heart beat.
- Changes in urination, tiredness, and nausea.
Atherosclerosis is common and often doesn't have symptoms until there's major damage. Being aware of your risk of the disease and knowing how to prevent or manage atherosclerosis will help you avoid heart disease, stroke and other complications. Living healthy with atherosclerosis is possible with proper management, so take steps toward better heart health now.
How to positively impact atherosclerosis
Atherosclerosis doesn't have to be a losing battle. In fact, the disease can be reversed through lifestyle changes, according to the American College of Cardiology. Take these steps for living healthy after being diagnosed with atherosclerosis:
1. Stop or refrain from smoking. Smoking cigarettes makes it more likely that fatty deposits will form in your arteries. Plaques may also grow bigger and faster, according to the AHA.
2. Know your cholesterol and blood pressure. LDL (bad) cholesterol plays a role in plaque formation, while HDL (good) cholesterol helps clear LDL cholesterol from arteries, the AHA explains. High triglyceride levels, combined with high LDL cholesterol levels, or low HDL cholesterol levels can lead to atherosclerosis. And when blood pressure is high, it causes tears in artery walls that LDL cholesterol can settle into more easily.
3. Get on a heart-healthy diet. Limiting saturated and trans fats from your diet by eating less red meat, fried food and dairy products made with whole milk will help lower your cholesterol. Swap them for healthy oils, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, poultry, fish and nuts. Eating high-fiber foods can lower cholesterol by as much as 10 percent, the AHA says.
4. Make fitness your goal. Being sedentary lowers your HDL cholesterol levels, so there's less of it to clear your arteries. Take brisk walks, cycle, or do other exercises for 40 minutes three or four times a week to help lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
5. Strive for weight loss. Carrying around extra weight raises LDL cholesterol levels and lowers HDL cholesterol levels. But, as the AHA notes, dropping 10 percent of your weight improves your numbers.