Your good health has an enemy: atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is common, and its effects can be devastating, causing strokes, heart attacks, and death. The good news is that you can take steps to protect yourself from this disease.
What is atherosclerosis?
Healthy arteries are like the pipes in a new house. Their inside walls are smooth and clean, making it possible to easily transport the blood your body needs. But arteries, like pipes, can become clogged. Fatty substances such as cholesterol can stick to the inner walls of an artery. These deposits, called plaque, can eventually slow or block the flow of blood. This blockage is atherosclerosis, and it can affect any medium- to large-sized artery in your body. When atherosclerosis affects the arteries that supply blood to the heart, it is called coronary artery disease.
How is cholesterol measured?
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) recommends that all adults older than 20 have their cholesterol level checked every five years. This is done with a blood test done after fasting for nine to 12 hours. The test should include total cholesterol, LDL ("bad") cholesterol, HDL ("good") cholesterol, and triglycerides. The NHLBI says that your LDL level should be less than 100 mg/dL if you are at high risk for heart disease. Your total cholesterol should be less than 200 mg/dL, and your HDL should be greater than 40 mg/dL.
Am I at risk?
These factors put you at greater risk for atherosclerosis:
Having more than one risk factor can increase your risk even more. You can control most of the above risk factors. The following tips can help you prevent atherosclerosis and improve your general health. In fact, by taking these steps, you may be able to stop the progression if you have atherosclerosis.
If you smoke, stop. Scientists think that smoking can cause atherosclerosis because it damages the artery walls, making it easier for plaque to build up. Smoking poses an even more dangerous risk when you have other risk factors, such as high blood pressure or diabetes. Quit smoking today. If you want help quitting, talk with your doctor. He or she has information on medications and programs to help make quitting easier. Also, avoid places where there is cigarette smoke. Research suggests that smoke from others can increase your risk of atherosclerosis.
Make changes to your diet. A diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol can raise your cholesterol levels. When you have high cholesterol, more plaque is available to line artery walls and narrow your arteries. The American Heart Association recommends that you reduce the amount of cholesterol and saturated fat in your diet. Cholesterol and saturated fat are found mostly in animal products such as meat, eggs, milk, and other dairy products. Check food labels to find the amount of saturated fat in a product. Also, avoid large amounts of salt and sugar. Be careful with processed foods, such as frozen dinners. They can be high in fat, sugar, salt and cholesterol. Choose lots of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, smaller portions of lean meats and fish, and whole grains such as oats and whole wheat. Choose unsaturated vegetable oils such as canola oil instead of saturated fats like butter.
Exercise regularly. Regular aerobic exercise can help fight atherosclerosis by reducing the amount of fat in your blood, lowering your blood pressure and cholesterol, and controlling your weight. It's never too late to start exercising. Brisk walking, swimming, and bicycling are good choices. It's OK to start slowly and work up to 30 minutes on most days. But before you begin, ask your doctor's advice about what kind of exercise program is right for you.
Get regular checkups. Have your doctor check your blood pressure and cholesterol. High blood pressure can further complicate atherosclerosis by causing artery walls to harden and thicken, a condition called arteriosclerosis. Talk about your health and your risk factors for atherosclerosis with your doctor.
Control diabetes with your doctor's help. People who have diabetes develop atherosclerosis more quickly. If you have diabetes, control your blood sugar level carefully.
Will I know if I have it?
Possibly not. Atherosclerosis is a disease that develops slowly over time and may start as early as your teens. In its early stages, you won't have any symptoms. But in its advanced stages, when the arteries are nearly or completely blocked, you may have symptoms such as numbness, weakness, chest pain, or cramps. Or, you may not notice symptoms until you have a stroke or a heart attack.
Because symptoms appear only after the damage has been done, do not wait for symptoms to develop before doing something about atherosclerosis. Begin by making the lifestyle changes outlined above even if you feel well.
Together, you and your doctor can decide what steps you need to take to win the fight.