Atherosclerosis is an insidious disease process of fat accumulation in the inner lining of arteries. The vessel wall is thus getting thicker and thicker, the arteries slowly get narrowed and the flow is hindered. Downstream tissue receives less oxygenated blood. Atherosclerosis is a serious chronic disease and can be very dangerous.
Atherosclerosis is caused by an inflammatory process, in which accumulation of fats take place in the wall of the arteries. With aging, this happens in every person to a greater or lesser extent. The accumulation of fat can be so bad, that a so-called plaque develops, which contains calcium deposits as well. A plaque is a kind of crust-like damage to the inside of the vessel wall. A danger in the short term is that the weakened arterial wall ruptures, leading to clots in the blood that can completely block an artery.
Risk factors for the development of atherosclerosis are:
- Heredity: one of the parents developed a cardiovascular disease before the age of 60.
- High blood pressure.
- High cholesterol.
- Smoking and to a lesser extent passive smoking.
- Wrong nutrition.
- Chronic stress.
- Poor exercise.
- Women using hormone therapy and to a lesser extent women using the contraceptive pill.
Depending on the location in the body where the narrowing develops, several signs and symptoms may occur:
- Narrowing of coronary arteries: chest pain (angina pectoris) or, in case of full closure, a heart attack.
- Narrowing of cerebral arteries: forgetfulness, headache, difficulty concentrating or, in case of full closure, a cerebral infarction.
- Narrowing of leg arteries: cold feet, pain in the leg that occurs during exercise (intermittent claudication).
The effects of atherosclerosis are sometimes determined during a routine examination. If this happens, the doctor will do the following checks:
- Blood tests: to determine cholesterol and blood sugar levels in the blood.
- Doppler ultrasound: with a special device, the blood stream is assessed at different locations in the arms and legs.
- Ankle-arm index: atherosclerosis in the leg can lead to a difference in blood pressure at the height of the arm versus the leg.
- Electrocardiogram (ECG): a recording of electrical signals from the heart.
- Cardiac stress test: An ECG during a cycling or walking test can demonstrate if problems occur during effort.
- Angiogram: imaging technique in which a contrast agent is injected into the blood vessels, followed by an X-ray recording. This can demonstrate the constrictions.
- Other imaging techniques, such as CT and MRI scans.
There is no treatment that can cure atherosclerosis. Combating the disease is mainly the prevention of risk factors for atherosclerosis. The treatment may be medication, for example anticoagulants for the prevention of blood clots. Complications of atherosclerosis, such as a heart attack or cerebral infarction, should be treated with urgency. This treatment may be surgically, for example the placement of a stent (a small tube that keeps the blood vessel open) after a heart attack.
Atherosclerosis is a long-lasting disease which continues to deteriorate over a long period. This condition leads to the main cause of death in both men and women: coronary artery disease. Although atherosclerosis is part of the normal aging process, the speed can be reduced by a healthy lifestyle, proper diet and medication. In addition to the clogging of an artery, resulting in an infarct, there is a risk that the vessel wall weakens, making the vessel wider instead of narrower (aneurysm).
- Avoid overweight.
- Provide plenty of exercise in fresh air.
- Avoid mental (over)load.
- Quit smoking.
- Use varied food, high in vitamins and minerals, such as fresh fruits and vegetables (preferably organically grown) and whole grain products. Especially recommended are brown rice and buckwheat.
- Avoid saturated fats, which are mainly found in animal fats. Instead, use products with a lot of unsaturated fats, such as oils of safflower, wheat germs or olives. Fish also contains polyunsaturated fats.
- Be moderate with the use of animal proteins, such as meat, eggs and cheese. Preferably use, but also moderately, vegetable proteins, such as soy products and other legumes.
- People who still want to eat meat, can sparingly choose chicken, turkey or lean meat.