Atherosclerosis is hardening of the medium and large arteries with plaques. The ‘plaque’ refers to deposits of fats, cellular debris (garbage) and irregular growth of normal cells of the artery. The artery then becomes narrower, and less flexible, allowing less blood to flow. Some tissues may not receive ample blood supply needed, becoming ischemic: lacking blood and oxygen. Sometimes the area of plaque will break off, and form blood clots. This sets the stage for such situations like heart attacks and strokes.
Atherosclerosis is the basis for many different types of heart disease and is known under different names: the general term cardiovascular disease (CVD), when it involves blood vessels to the heart it is called coronary artery disease (CAD), when there is a decrease in blood and oxygen it is called ischemic heart disease- (IHD), when it involves blood flow to the abdomen, arms and legs it is peripheral artery disease – (PAD) or intermittent claudication-specially involving blood flow to the legs and producing pain during exercise, stroke and transient ischemic attacks (TIA), heart attacks or myocardial infarction (MI), high blood pressure and angina.
Scientists believe that atherosclerosis happens during the course of life; for instance, children may have areas of atherosclerosis at various parts of the body not associated with disease, and not commonly found in adults. But it is the progression of the disease during adult years that can be treated and prevented with a healthy lifestyle and diet.
There are a number of risk factors for heart disease, and many can be changed to reduce your risk of disease.
There are several different fractions of compounds called cholesterol and blood lipoprotein, one of which is low density lipoprotein (LDL). LDL is the transporting device that brings cholesterol from the cells that make it, for example the liver, to the calls that use it, the cells of the blood vessels, also called endothelial cells that make up the lining of the blood vessels. One theory of heart disease hold that cholesterol deposits contribute to plaques by adding layers of LDL in the artery wall, starting tissue injury and attracting more cells to the area. The fat included in the LDL molecule can then oxidize, making an unstable situation with free radical damage and creating more injury to the artery and cementing the plaques in the vessel wall.
Homocysteine is derived from the amino acid methonine metabolism from protein. It is usually involved with the production of other compounds called methyl donors that are very important to our health. When nutritional status of the B vitamins are low, normal methonine– homocysteine metabolism is interrupted, and homocysteine levels build up. The homocysteine compound then can cause oxidative damage to the LDL, especially if the LDL has been deposited in the blood vessel lining, causing more damage and leading to plaques.
Cigarette smoke contains hundreds of chemicals. Not only are some of these chemicals carcinogenic, some are carried on the LDL molecule and deposited in the vessel itself. Smokers have a more severe amount of atherosclerosis in the blood vessels that feed the heart muscle, and therefore have a higher incidence of heart attacks.
The Type A personality: competitive, aggressive, impatient and over hostile has been linked with heart disease and heart attacks for many years now. Also people who have anxiety and stress associated with a great deal of worry also have problems with heart disease.
A sedentary lifestyle is an independent risk factor for heart disease and the formation of plaques; it contributes to obesity which increases the risk even more.
Being significantly overweight increases the risk for several diseases including heart disease and diabetes. Central obesity, which is fat accumulation in the waist area, is also associated with increased insulin levels, diabetes, and infertility in women.
Lowered nutritional status
Vitamins and antioxidants can not only help prevent some of the plaque formation that happens with atherosclerosis but can prevent against cancer and other chronic degenerative disease.
Diabetes is not only a condition of insulin and blood sugar, but can cause significant problems with the tissues of blood vessels. Diabetic have a greater risk for earlier and more severe level of atherosclerotic vessels changes.
High blood pressure
Otherwise known as hypertension, high blood pressure is considered by some to be the greatest risk factor for a stroke. High blood pressure is common in atherosclerosis due to the narrowing of the blood vessels, which increases the resistance the blood flow must face.
As we age there is an increased of having atherosclerosis and a heart attack, but that may be more associated with the accumulation of risk factors.
Epidemiological studies have found that more men suffer from heart disease than women, but after menopause the risk generally evens out to become equal.
Having close relatives who had heart disease or a stroke at a relatively young age has shown to be a risk factor for atherosclerotic heart disease but it is not clear whether it is genetic or from similar learned lifestyle patterns.
Many times there are no symptoms, as sometimes blood vessel blockage is usually around 90% before symptoms start to appear. Often, the first sign is a heart attack or abnormal results on blood tests.
Some people may experience chest pain known as Angina pectoralis in association with atherosclerosis. This type of pain may be a vague, heavy sensation resembling an ache or it may be a severe, intense stabbing or crushing sensation. Angina pain can travel in the shoulder, towards the arm and fingers, or even be felt in the abdomen. But not all cases of Angina are from atherosclerosis, although other causes are less common.
In many individuals with atherosclerotic heart disease there is a particular earlobe crease. It is a diagonal crease appearing at a 45° downward angle toward the shoulder. It is thought to happen from the lack of blood flow to the skin of the ear and loss of elastin, a material that keeps the ear flexible. It does not apply to Asian, Native Americans or people with the rare condition known as Beckwith’s syndrome.