Understanding the Dangers of Atherosclerosis

Arteries are the circulatory system’s conduits that lead from the heart to the rest of your body carrying oxygen and other nutrients for the tissues. Atherosclerosis (sometimes used interchangeably with arteriosclerosis) refers to a narrowing of the arteries caused by a buildup of plaque on the cells’ walls. 

If not treated, this narrowing from plaque buildup can lead to major vascular events, such as peripheral artery disease (PAD), heart attack, and stroke.

At Advanced Cardiac Care, board-certified cardiologist Dr. Michael Avaricio and his staff specialize in providing long-term cardiac management to improve cardiac and overall health and lengthen lives. 

Here’s what you need to know about the dangers of atherosclerosis and the damage it can cause.

Arterial plaque — a sticky situation

As you get older or if you eat a high-fat diet and live a sedentary lifestyle, fats, cholesterol, and calcium can build up on your artery walls, forming a sticky plaque. This buildup may occur in any artery in your body, especially in your heart, legs, and kidneys, making it difficult for blood to flow freely and easily.

The end result is a shortage of blood and oxygen in the tissues the artery supplies, including your heart and brain. Pieces of plaque can also break off from the wall, causing a blood clot and blocking blood from passing through altogether. 

If left untreated, atherosclerosis can lead to heart attack, stroke, or heart failure.

Atherosclerosis is a fairly common problem, but it’s one that can be prevented and successfully treated. Early detection and treatment are key.

Major causes of and risk factors for atherosclerosis

Arteries are lined by the endothelium, a thin layer of blood vessel cells that keeps the inside of your arteries smooth and the blood flowing. Atherosclerosis begins with damage to the endothelium. 

Common causes and risk factors include:

When LDL cholesterol crosses a damaged endothelium, it enters the artery wall, and white blood cells stream in to digest it. Over the years, the cells and the cholesterol combine to form plaque, which appears as a bump in the lining. 

As atherosclerosis gets worse, the bump gets bigger, until it’s so large it forms a blockage, and blood can’t pass, putting you at risk for major systemic diseases.

Your body starts forming plaque as early as your teenage years, making early prevention key. A 40-year-old who’s generally healthy has about a 50% chance of developing severe atherosclerosis in their lifetime, with the risk increasing as they get older. 

The dangers of atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis is a silent disease, meaning it often doesn’t present symptoms until you’ve reached a serious or life-threatening point. The built-up plaque can behave in different ways.

It can remain in your artery wall, grow to a certain size, and then stop. Because it doesn't block blood flow, you may never experience symptoms.

The plaque could also grow in a slow, controlled way. Over time, it causes large blockages that lead to pain in your chest or legs when you exert yourself.

When plaque ruptures suddenly, the rupture causes a blood clot inside the artery that blocks blood flow. In the brain, this causes a stroke, and in the heart, a heart attack.

Types of cardiovascular disease

The atherosclerosis plaques cause three types of cardiovascular disease:

Coronary artery disease

Plaque in the heart's arteries causes chest pain (angina). A sudden plaque rupture and subsequent clotting causes heart muscle to die (heart attack).

Cerebrovascular disease

Plaque ruptures in the brain, causing strokes and the potential for permanent brain damage.

Peripheral artery disease

Arteries in your legs narrow, leading to poor circulation, painful walking, non-healing skin wounds, and the potential for amputation.

Additional complications include:

Treating atherosclerosis

Dr. Avaricio creates an individualized treatment plan for ongoing disease management that includes:

If you have any of the risk factors for atherosclerosis, or if you need ongoing disease management, contact us today to schedule a consultation with Dr. Avaricio at our Queens, New York, office. Medical intervention might just save your life.

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