Atherosclerosis is the narrowing and hardening of arteries caused by a buildup of fats, cholesterol and other substances in or around their walls. This deposit is called plaque which can cause narrowing of the arteries, resulting in limited blood flow. Atherosclerosis can affect any artery in the body and consequently cause various diseases. These include ischemic heart disease, carotid artery disease, peripheral artery disease, and chronic kidney disease, among and others.
Various factors like smoking, high levels of blood cholesterol, elevated blood pressure, and blood sugar levels damage the inner layers of the arteries and cause plaque build in these areas. With time this plaque starts to harden, which results in the narrowing of the arteries. Eventually, it may lead to the rupture of the plaque area. This results in Blood platelets then stick to the site of the injury, where they may clump together to form blood clots. These blood clots narrow the arteries even more, restricting the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the body and can also worsen chest pain or lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Major risk factors contributing to Atherosclerosis:
The exact cause of atherosclerosis is unknown. However, certain factors or conditions may increase its risk. If they can be controlled, we can prevent or delay the development of the disease:
1. High cholesterol: High LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and low HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) are signs of disturbed blood lipid profile, making a person more prone to atherosclerosis.
2. High blood pressure: 140/90 mmHg or more is considered to be high for a person with no underlying medical issue. However, if a person is diabetic, has a kidney issue or has hypertension, the high blood pressure range is 130/80 mmHg or higher. Hypertension is one of the leading causes of atherosclerosis.
3. Smoking: It can damage the blood vessels, increase cholesterol levels, and raise blood pressure. Smoking doesn't allow proper oxygen supply to the body's tissues.
4. Diabetes: Diabetes can cause blood sugar level to shoot up because the body either does not produce enough insulin or utilise it properly.
5. Obesity: Obesity can result in the accumulation of fatty material in the arteries, which can damage and clog them and, increase the risk of a heart attack. Aim to maintain a BMI of less than 25 kg/m2.
6. Sedentary lifestyle: A sedentary and inactive lifestyle can elevate the chances of atherosclerosis.
7. Unhealthy diet: Foods high in saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar can largely contribute to the development of the disease.
8. Age: With advancing age, the risk of atherosclerosis increases as enough plaque has built up to show disease-related signs or symptoms. Men over 45 years of age and women above age 55 are more prone to atherosclerosis.
9. Family history: The risk of atherosclerosis increases with a family history of heart problems or hypertension.
10. Elevated levels of C-reactive protein (CRP): High levels of CRP in blood are a sign of underlying inflammation in the body which maybe another potential threat for atherosclerosis.
11. Stress: Various studies show that the most commonly seen causes for a heart attack are an emotional breakdown, depression, or stress.
12. Alcohol: Excessive alcohol intake can damage the cardiac muscles and put you at a greater risk of developing atherosclerosis.
Dietary and lifestyle changes that may help in managing the condition:
Atherosclerosis may not be prevented completely. However, we can reduce the risk and minimise the effects of the disease by adopting a proper lifestyle and diet. Take a healthy diet that is low in saturated fats and cholesterol. Avoid fried, oily and junk foods. Add fish to your diet twice a week and avoid red meat. Choose whole grains like oats, brown rice, whole wheat flour and even millets over refined flour and its products. Invest atleast 30 minutes in any physical activity of your choice on daily basis. Incorporate fruits, green vegetables, probiotics, nuts and seeds and garlic in your daily diet as these foods help in maintaining healthy arteries. Opt for low-fat dairy products such as toned /double toned/ skimmed milk, cheese, and curd made with low fat versions of milk. Quit smoking if you are a chain smoker. Alcohol consumption should be limited, men should not take more than two drinks a day, whereas women should restrict their alcohol intake to one drink a day. Maintain a healthy weight and BMI as being overweight can increase the risk of atherosclerosis. Manage your stress as it can increase the cortisol hormone, contributing to hormonal imbalance. Get a proper sleep of 7-8 hours daily so that the body can revive and repair itself. Controlling conditions like hypertension, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, obesity, diabetes, gut issues, and inflammation can also be beneficial in preventing atherosclerosis.