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Getting to the Heart of Atherosclerosis

Getting to the Heart of Atherosclerosis

heart-atherosclerosis.jpg

Atherosclerosis is a medical condition involving the build-up of fatty material called plaque on the inner walls of large and medium-sized arteries. The plaque is composed of lipid, cell debris, smooth muscle cells, collagen, and, in older persons, calcium.

Clogged arteries reduce the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your main organs. This greatly increases the risk of angina (chest pains) and heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral arterial disease, which may all inadvertently result in death.

Thinking in another way: when a blood vessel is clear and free of plaque build-up, the blood flow will be smooth. However, when there is a build-up of plaque, it’s almost like having “road blocks” inside your blood vessels. This causes a “traffic jam” to occur because the plaque makes the artery narrow and less elastic.

Risk factors of atherosclerosis

  • High blood cholesterol level
  • High blood pressure
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Ageing
  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of heart disease

Symptoms and complications
People don’t usually realise that they have the disease because its symptoms are not apparent until a medical emergency such as a heart attack or stroke happens.

However, depending on the location of the plaque, some symptoms may occur like in the following:

Coronary artery disease
This is caused by clogged heart arteries and may result in angina, shortness of breath, fast heart beats, and dizziness, just to name a few.

While symptoms of angina and heartburn may seem similar, it’s actually not that hard to distinguish between them. Heartburn, unlike angina, is usually associated with a sour taste in the mouth and regurgitation (the sensation of food or liquid coming up into the throat especially when lying down).

Carotid artery disease
This is caused by clogged brain arteries and may result in numbness on one side of your body, arms and legs, or in the slurring of words.

Peripheral artery disease
This is caused by clogged arteries in extremities such as the legs, arms, and pelvis and may result in leg pain, cold feet, and delays in the healing of injuries in extremities.

It may also result in gangrene, the localised death of skin and other tissues, which is characterised by blue or black coloured skin, pain, numbness, and sores that produce a foul-smelling discharge.

Test and Diagnosis
Make an appointment with your health care provider if you are at risk of atherosclerosis, especially if you have been noticing the symptoms described here. Your physician will perform a physical examination, a series of diagnostic tests, as well as imaging to tell you whether you have the disease.

Treatment
The medication prescribed will be dependent on the underlying medical conditions diagnosed by your physician. For example, medicines for high blood pressure and cholesterol may be administered. Blood thinning medicines are among the more common medicines to help prevent blood clots from forming inside your arteries. Your doctor will discuss a suitable treatment with you.

Prevention
You can prevent atherosclerosis and its complications by modifying your life style.

Some lifestyle modifications include:

  • A reduced intake of high-fat foods, salt, and sugar
  • An increased intake of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains
  • Replacing the saturated fats and trans fats in your diet with unsaturated fats

Saturated fats and trans fats (bad cholesterol) can be found in foods like red meat and margarine while unsaturated fats (good cholesterol) can be found in most fish oils and vegetable oils.

The USDA recommends that the average individual should:

  • Keep total fat intake to 20-35% of your daily calories
  • Limit saturated fats to less than 10% of your calories (200 calories for a 2000 calorie diet)
  • Limit trans fats to 1% of calories (2 grams per day for a 2000 calorie diet).
  • Reduce daily intake of salt to less than 2.4 grams.

If you love to snack, replace your favourite snacks with an apple, carrot sticks, or nuts. Be active; exercise at least three times per week for at least 30 minutes each session. Quit smoking for your health and for your loved ones.

If you are a healthy individual, you should also go for regular health screening.
For example:

Screening Tests Recommended
Body Mass Index (BMI) for obesity For 18 years old and above, once every year
Blood Pressure measurement For 40 years old and above, once every year or as advised by your health care provider.
Blood Glucose For 40 years old and above ,once every 3 years
Blood lipid profile For 40 years old and above, once every 3 years

Ask your pharmacist for more information on how you can maintain an excellent heart health.

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