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Atherosclerosis: Symptoms and Causes

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Select Justice
November 10, 2021

It’s estimated that atherosclerosis is the root cause of 50% of deaths in the western world. It’s known to contribute to diseases such as ischemic heart disease, carotid artery disease, peripheral artery disease, chronic kidney disease, and cerebral vascular disease. 

With such a high rate of disease, it’s only natural to wonder about the symptoms and causes. Perhaps you have been diagnosed with atherosclerosis, or maybe you’re wondering what you can do to reduce your risk of developing the disease in the future. 

What is Atherosclerosis?

Simply put, atherosclerosis is a hardening of the arteries. Arteries extend from your heart and supply your body with blood and oxygen. When they become hardened, your organs and tissues might not get the blood supply they need. 

Specifically, when arteries become thick and stiff due to atherosclerosis, the arteries become filled with plaques. This is mainly a buildup of fat and cholesterol. These build-ups cause the arteries to become hard and narrow. 

What Causes Atherosclerosis?

There are many potential causes of atherosclerosis, and the disease typically progresses slowly over many years. It can even begin in childhood and go unnoticed until symptoms develop many years later. It is thought that atherosclerosis begins with some sort of damage to an artery. Some of the causes of this damage can include: 

  • High blood pressure
  • Inflammation from an autoimmune or inflammatory disease
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • High cholesterol
  • Smoking
  • High triglycerides

When this initial damage occurs, your arteries begin to fill with blood cells and other small particles that become plaques. As your arteries fill with plaques, they narrow and become stiff. Over time, these plaques can increase in size, blocking off blood supply and oxygen. The plaques can also break off. They may travel to other parts of your body, and they may leave a blood clot in their wake. 

In addition to the potential causes of artery damage listed above, other risk factors for atherosclerosis include: 

  • Obesity
  • Old age
  • Sleep apnea
  • High levels of inflammation in the body
  • Family history of heart disease
  • Poor diet
  • Sedentary lifestyle and lack of exercise 
  • Being male

Additionally, some prescription medications have been linked to the development of atherosclerosis. Specifically, Tasigna, a drug used to treat leukemia can lead to acute atherosclerosis. This differs from traditional atherosclerosis because the acute version forms and develops quickly, in stark contrast to the traditional form that takes years to develop. 

Atherosclerosis Symptoms

Atherosclerosis is often associated with the heart, but it can occur in arteries anywhere throughout the body. Many people, especially those with a mild case, don’t have any symptoms of atherosclerosis. 

Symptoms typically occur when an artery becomes so narrow that it fails to supply blood and oxygen to an artery or tissue. In some cases, an artery may become blocked completely. Because atherosclerosis can happen in many different places in the body, your symptoms will vary based on which arteries are affected. 

heart attack
Heart Attack

Symptoms of atherosclerosis can include: 

  • Chest pain
  • Chest pressure
  • Numbness or weakness in arms or legs
  • Blood clots
  • Visual disturbances
  • Drooping facial muscles
  • Leg pain when walking
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Kidney failure
  • Slurred speech or difficulty speaking

Atherosclerosis can even lead to a heart attack or stroke, which happens when a blood clot breaks apart and travels to the heart or brain. Because the disease often produces no symptoms, many people don’t know they have it until they experience one of these major events. 

What Distinguishes Atherosclerosis from Arteriosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is often confused with arteriosclerosis. Atherosclerosis and arteriosclerosis are related, but these words do not have the exact same meaning. Atherosclerosis is a type of arteriosclerosis, meaning a case of atherosclerosis is always arteriosclerosis as well, but arteriosclerosis is not always atherosclerosis. 

Artery Disease
Artery Disease

Arteriosclerosis is an overall term to describe the hardening of the arteries, while atherosclerosis specifically refers to the buildup of fat and cholesterol. This forms plaques that lead to the hardening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis is the hardening of the arteries only when the hardening is caused by plaque buildup. Hardening of arteries due to other causes is considered arteriosclerosis. 

What to Do If You Have Atherosclerosis

Unfortunately, finding out that you have atherosclerosis often comes after a major health scare, such as a heart attack or stroke. Your doctor may prescribe medication to lower your cholesterol or blood pressure. He or she may also prescribe medications that reduce your blood’s ability to clot. 

Atherosclerosis
atherosclerosis

You can also make lifestyle changes that can reduce your risk of developing atherosclerosis. This may include losing weight, controlling your blood sugar, changing your diet, quitting smoking, or increasing your activity. 

After an atherosclerosis diagnosis, it’s important to maintain a close relationship with your healthcare providers. Be sure to keep all your appointments, work to reduce your lifestyle risk factors, and contact your doctor if you develop any new or worsening symptoms. 

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