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Anand Mukherji (name changed), was a tall, slim 48-year-old man who worked at a bank. Overall he was fit for his age, but he hardly exercised and followed a not-so-healthy diet. On a Sunday morning, he was at home reading the newspaper when he suffered a minor heart attack. Upon hospitalization, it was found that he had a block in one of the coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart. Since he wasn't visibly unhealthy and never had any symptoms of heart disease, he never bothered to check for his cholesterol levels. And this is what landed him in this condition!
In this post, we attempt to answer some of your common questions on atherosclerosis and its effect on the heart:
What is atherosclerosis? How does it affect my health?
A block in the arteries is actually caused by narrowing and thickening of the walls of arteries due to the deposition of fatty substances such as cholesterol along with other cellular waste. This condition is called as atherosclerosis.
The substances that get accumulated along the arteries form a buildup called plaque or atheroma. Plaques are mainly dangerous because they narrow the arteries, restrict the blood flow and can hamper the functioning of several organs. Plaques can also rupture and result in a blood clot which again blocks the blood supply to the heart. These conditions either trigger a heart attack or a stroke affecting the brain.
Read more about causes, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of peripheral vascular disease.
Atherosclerosis is a slow disease and takes really long time to progress and cause complications. In a few people, plaque formation may start during childhood and may advance rapidly during 30s. In others, it doesn't really pose a threat until 50s or 60s.
With all advances in surgical and operative procedures, people who initially show the symptoms of heart attack can prevent the complications in advance. But, people in whom any signs are not seen at an early stage are at a greater risk. (Read: Silent heart attacks: Why you need to be aware)
What are the risk factors for atherosclerosis?
The exact cause of atherosclerosis is unknown. However, there are several factors that may increase the risk cardiovascular diseases due to atherosclerosis. Permanent risk factors include increasing age and a family history of heart disease. Risk factors that can be controlled by changing lifestyle include:
The risk of heart diseases also increases under certain health conditions such as:
Researchers suspect that high blood levels of protein called C-reactive protein (CRP) might increase the risk of atherosclerosis and attacks. High blood levels of triglycerides, especially in women, may also increase the risk. (Read: 70% of the urban Indian population at risk of heart disease!
How do I know I have atherosclerosis? What are its symptoms?
Atherosclerosis is a silent condition and may not show any symptoms until the affected artery is blocked enough to disturb the blood blow and deprive the organs and tissues of sufficient blood supply. However, with partial block of arteries, the following signs may be seen:
Can I figure out if I do have atherosclerosis? How can it be diagnosed?
There are several diagnostic methods used to confirm atherosclerosis. When you present to the doctor for clinical evaluation, a physical examination is first conducted. Weak pulse, lowered blood pressure, poor wound healing may indicate atherosclerosis. Following that, your doctor may recommend you any of the following tests:
Other tests like a chest X-ray can be suggested to analyze the structures of heart and blood vessels and detect the signs of heart failure. An ankle-brachial index is taken to compare blood pressure of the ankle with the blood pressure of the arm. An abnormal index may indicate peripheral vascular disease caused by atherosclerosis. (Read: Obese people always likelier to suffer a heart attack)
What after being diagnosed with atherosclerosis? How can I get treated for it?
Cholesterol lowering drugs:
The main cause of atherosclerosis is deposition of cholesterol on the walls of the arteries. And, there are various cholesterol lowering drugs (containing statins and fibrates) that you may be prescribed for getting cholesterol under control. However, these drugs are just to bring cholesterol down to a safe level. They should not to be taken for life as they may have long-term effects on the body. To maintain good cholesterol levels you should have a healthy diet control and involve regular physical activity in your daily routine. (Read: World Heart Day 2013: Expert tips to prevent heart disease)
What if medicines do not work? Are there surgical options?
In case of severe symptoms or malfunctioning of an organ, the following procedures may be carried out:
Is there any way I can prevent it?
It is only with lifestyle changes that you can stay away from complications of atherosclerosis. So, exercise regularly and improve circulation, eat healthy and stay fit, quit smoking and drinking and live a stress-free life.
Libby P and Theroux P. Pathophysiology of coronary artery disease.
Toth PP. Subclinical atherosclerosis: what it is, what it means and what we can do about it
John R. Guyton. Atherosclerosis- A story of cells, cholesterol and clots
American Heart Association (http://www.heart.org)
Preventing and Managing Atherosclerosis (http://www.news-medical.net)
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