This article I am going to address some questions from our readers related to atherosclerosis and stroke. The topic of atherosclerosis is very complex – it could fill several chapters of a textbook – so this will be a very basic introduction. I will be more than happy to provide a more in-depth description to anyone who may be interested…
What is atherosclerosis?
The definition of atherosclerosis is a disease of the arteries characterized by the deposition of plaques of fatty material on their inner walls. These plaques can restrict blood flow or they can burst triggering blood clots. Atherosclerosis can affect arteries anywhere in your body, but most commonly affects the heart, brain, arms and legs, and kidneys.
What causes atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis is a slowly progressive disease that begins in childhood. The exact cause is unknown, but generally starts when there is damage to the inner layer of the artery. Risk factors that cause damage to this inner layer of the artery include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, smoking, diabetes, obesity, inflammation (arthritis, lupus, infections, or inflammation from unknown cause). Over time plaques composed of cellular products and cholesterol build up at the site of injury and harden which causes narrowing of the arteries. In addition, these plaques can rupture causing blood clots that can block arteries and prevent blood flow to vital organs. Atherosclerosis can also cause aneurysms, which are a bulge in the wall of the artery, if an aneurysm bursts it can cause life-threatening internal bleeding.
Is this what causes strokes?
Strokes can be causes either by an emboli (blood clot) or hemorrhage (due to aneurysm that has burst). When atherosclerosis affects the carotid arteries it can cause narrowing leading to a TIA or stroke. Also, if a plaque ruptures it can cause blood clots that can block arteries in the brain as well.
What are some of the symptoms of a stroke?
- Trouble with speaking and understanding
- Paralysis or numbness of face, arms or legs
- Acute trouble with vision in one or both eyes
- Severe Headache
- Trouble walking/balance
Is stroke something that only older women have to worry about?
Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. Although age is a major risk factor for stroke, more than a third of strokes occur in persons younger than 65 years. More than 60% of stroke related deaths occur in women, and women are less than half as likely as men to be able to live independently after a stroke.
Are poor eating habits the leading cause of atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis is a very complex process. There are many risk factors related to atherosclerosis as outlined above. There usually is both a combination of genetic factors as well as lifestyle choices that affect the development of atherosclerosis. Poor eating habits leads to the development of many of the risk factors associated with atherosclerosis. In addition, many of the processed foods prevalent in the American diet are very inflammatory which can contribute to vessel injury and therefore pre-dispose to plaque formation.
What preventative steps would you recommend?
Make lifestyle changes to reduce your chance of developing risk factors associated with atherosclerosis. This would include dietary changes such as adopting “clean eating”- avoiding processed foods and food additives, exercising on a regular basis and stress reduction. Quit smoking.
If I have been diagnosed with atherosclerosis, what treatments are available?
The treatments would be related to addressing the specific risk factors that you have which may be contributing to the formation of atherosclerosis such as treating your blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, infectious or inflammatory conditions. As well as therapeutic lifestyle changes which include dietary, exercise and stress reduction.
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