Atherosclerosis is a disease in which the arteries become hardened and there is plaque build up inside the arteries.
Occasionally, you may hear atherosclerosis being referred to as the Plaque Disease.
Plaque is a substance that is made up of various different materials such as; cholesterol, fatty substances, cellular waste products, calcium and fibrin (a clotting material in the blood).
Atherosclerosis is a type of arteriosclerosis. Arteriosclerosis is a general term for the thickening and hardening of arteries.
What Damage Does Atherosclerosis Cause?
Plaque may partially or totally block the blood’s flow through an artery in the heart, brain, pelvis, legs, arms or kidneys. This is why this disease is called the plaque disease.
Some diseases that may develop as a result of atherosclerosis include coronary heart disease, angina (chest pain), carotid artery disease, peripheral artery disease (PAD) and chronic kidney disease.
Two things that can happen where plaque occurs are:
- A piece of the plaque may break off.
- A blood clot (thrombus) may form on the plaque’s surface.
Atherosclerosis is a slow, progressive disease that may start in childhood, although it mostly occurs after 50 years of age.
It is not uncommon to see individuals diagnosed with this disease at 30 or 40 years of age.
With this disease, a heart attack or stroke may occur that can cause severe injury and disability to the affected individual.
Atherosclerosis affects large and medium-sized arteries. The type of artery affected and where the plaque develops varies with each person.
How Does Atherosclerosis Start and Progress?
Atherosclerosis happens in a very complex process.
In fact, experts have not been able to explain exactly why atherosclerosis happen or the exact causes of the disease.
However, research shows that it occurs due to damage to the inner lining of the artery called the endothelium.
This damage then causes plaque buildup in the endothelium of the artery.
There are three possible causes of damage to the arterial wall and they are as follows:
- High blood pressure
- Exposure to free radicals through things such as unhealthy diets and cigarette smoking
- High levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood
Atherosclerosis is sometimes called a silent killer because many individuals who have the disease are usually unaware of it until they experience an emergency sign or symptom of the disease.
The emergency signs and symptoms are usually evident only when the arteries are severely narrowed or when there is a total block of the artery.
Performing annual physicals, blood work, blood glucose levels, and lipid profiles can help individuals who have high-risk factors for the disease.
It is important that individuals take good care of themselves and live a healthy lifestyle to reduce their chances of having this disease.
Forms of Atherosclerosis in the Arteries
Atherosclerosis can happen in several arteries throughout the body and can cause serious injury to the organ and tissues the body.
The following are the forms of atherosclerosis that can occur in the body:
- Coronary Arteries
- Carotid Arteries
- Peripheral Arteries
- Renal Arteries
The coronary arteries supply oxygen-rich blood to your heart and its vessels.
Coronary artery disease (CAD) or Angina occurs when there is plaque build-up in the coronary arteries which causes the arteries to be narrowed or blocked.
Angina is a very common cause of CAD that causes severe chest pain or discomfort as a result of the heart muscle being deprived of oxygen-rich blood.
The symptoms of Coronary artery disease are as following:
- Fatigue or tiredness
- Angina or chest pain that radiates to the arm, shoulders, back or jaw
- Indigestion ( a symptom of angina in women)
- Chest pain during activity or at rest
- Shortness of breath
- Irregular heart rate
The carotid arteries supply oxygen-rich blood to the brain, head, and face.
When a plaque develops in the carotid arteries and causes it to become narrow or blocked then a carotid artery disease develops.
With Carotid artery blockage can cause a stroke because it carries oxygen to the face, head, and the brain.
The following are the symptoms of a stroke, they may include:
- Dizziness, trouble walking, loss of balance or coordination, and unexplained falls
- Loss of consciousness
- Sudden and severe headache
- Sudden weakness
- Numbness (face, arms, or legs, especially on one side of the body)
- Trouble speaking or understanding speech
- Trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Problems breathing
Peripheral Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood to the upper and lower extremities, namely the legs, arms, and pelvis.
Thus, when there is a plaque build up in the arteries that carry blood to the upper and lower extremities a peripheral artery disease occurs.
The symptoms of peripheral artery disease may include the following:
The renal arteries are responsible for supplying oxygen-rich blood to the kidneys.
With kidney disease, plaque builds up in the renal arteries which can affect the absorption, re-absorption and filtration function of the kidney.
There are two main types of Kidney disease: Acute kidney disease and chronic kidney disease.
Acute kidney disease generally has a rapid onset and the patient may be hospitalized.
Chronic kidney disease develops over a long period of time and can gradually slow down the kidney function over time.
The symptoms of kidney disease may include the following:
- Fatigue or tiredness,
- Changes in how you urinate (more often or less often),
- itchiness or numbness
- Swelling in the hands or feet
- Nausea (feeling sick to the stomach)
- Loss of appetite
- Trouble concentrating
How To Prevent Atherosclerosis Disease
Now that we have discussed the different types of atherosclerosis, let’s talk about the measures that you can take to prevent this disease from occurring or reducing your chances of having the disease.
Individuals can significantly lower their chances of having atherosclerosis by doing the following:
- Eating a healthy diet
- Exercise regularly and be physically active
- Weight management and weight loss is important
- Smoking Cessation
- Schedule an annual physical examination and health assessment with your health care provider
Although the exact causes of the plaque disease (atherosclerosis) remain unknown, lifestyle can hugely influence the outcomes of this disease.
Therefore, the best way to lower your chances of having atherosclerosis is by living a healthy lifestyle and adopting the above practices.
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Thank you for reading!
Pam is the founder and author of InfoWatchNurse and ThinkStethoscopes. Pam is an award-winning leader. In 2017, She pioneered the first ever peer tutoring program for nursing students at York University. She was also a Peer Tutor and Mentor for nursing students. Today, Pam creates posts and articles on health topics to give back to the nursing community. She blogs about nursing, health, nursing skills and other health related topics on her websites. You can connect with Pam on Linkedin and Instagram.