Talkeetna: (907) 733-2273 ~ Willow: (907) 495-4100 ~ Wasilla: (907) 376-2273

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Atherosclerosis, Stroke & Heart Disease

Lifestyle choices and eating habits can cause various chronic and acute health conditions. Low activity with foods high in fat and sugar are the main culprits of heart disease and diabetes.

What is atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is the hardening of the arterial walls due to fat, cholesterol, platelets, cellular debris, and calcium deposits that build-up on artery walls. The build-up is called plaque and over time it can narrow or even block arteries. Plaque build-up can also rupture and cause blood clots.

How does atherosclerosis progress?

Atherosclerosis does not form overnight. Plaque development begins in childhood, with symptoms appearing as you reach middle-age or older.

LDL or bad cholesterol gets caught on damaged arterial walls. Other particles in the blood get stuck along with it and accumulate over time. These deposits are called plaque.

Plaque creates a bump inside the arterial walls and continues to thicken and harden over time, narrowing the artery’s diameter. This reduces blood flow and lowers oxygen supply to that area in the body. As the narrowing gets severe, these blockages can cause pain or rupture suddenly. A ruptured blockage can cause blood clots, which can completely choke off the blood supply.

Who is at risk?

Risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing atherosclerosis include:

  • High blood cholesterol
  • Smoking or being exposed to second-hand smoke
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Being overweight
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Long term stress

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How does atherosclerosis cause damage?

Plaques alone only narrow the diameter of arteries, slowing down blood flow. Severe damage begins when a blockage ruptures and platelets come to the rescue creating a cap on the ruptured site, that forms a blood clot.

Blood clots can either sit on top of a ruptured blockage or get chipped off (embolism) and travel throughout the body. These embolisms can get stuck in major arteries that supply oxygenated blood to the heart or brain. When that happens, it can cause either a heart attack or a stroke.

Atherosclerosis plaques can cause three main types of heart disease:

Coronary artery disease is caused by plaque build-up in the heart, causing chest pain. When plaque ruptures suddenly, the flow of oxygenated blood to heart muscles gets cut off, ultimately causing those parts to die. This is what happens in a heart attack.

Cerebrovascular disease is caused by plaque build-up in your vessels and arteries that supply blood to your brain. Ruptures of plaque in your brain’s arteries can cause strokes and potentially permanent brain damage. Blockages in arteries that supply the brain that is temporary are referred to as a mini-stroke or transient ischemic attacks (TIA). Although TIA’s do not usually cause brain injuries, they are, however, warning signs of a stroke.

Peripheral artery disease: Plaque build-up in the arteries of your legs acts no differently than those developed in the arteries of the heart and brain. Narrow arteries in the legs and arms cause pain or cramping that is usually triggered by activity and subsides after a few minutes of rest. Very poor blood circulation can lead to wounds that never heal. Severe forms of this disease may lead to amputation.

Treatment

Once blockages develop, they are there to stay. Medications are available, and lifestyle changes can slow down or stop its progression. Eating a balanced diet along with regular exercise and avoiding cigarettes, can lower your risks of getting strokes and cardiovascular disease.

If you are diagnosed with atherosclerosis, your doctor can prescribe medications to control your cholesterol levels. However, severe cases of the disease may force your doctor to use a more invasive approach, like the following:

  • Stents and Angiography
  • Bypass surgery
  • Endarterectomy
  • Fibrinolytic therapy

These procedures may have complications. Only people with significant, severe symptoms or limitations undergo these procedures.

*Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

 

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