What is Atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis is a form of arteriosclerosis. Arteriosclerosis is defined as a chronic disease wherein the walls of the arteries become abnormally thick and hard. This usually happens in old age. In this form, the artery wall thickens due to the accumulation of white blood cells. These blood cells include those that are active (causing inflammations) and remnants of dead cells, which are usually cholesterol and triglycerides. This accumulation has a negative effect on how elastic the artery walls are. This, however, does not affect the blood flow for a long period of time. The muscular wall of the artery can actually stretch where there are plaques. Over time, the stiffening of the artery walls will increase pulse pressure, which then may cause an advanced disease within the major arteries.
This disease is asymptomatic for decades, meaning it does not show a series of symptoms for a long period of time. Symptoms usually occur only when there is enough narrowing or closure of the artery takes place due to clots, and when blood flow is impeded to different organs. Most patients discover that they have the disease only when they experience a stroke or heart attack. Symptoms vary depending on which organ is affected by impeded blood flow.
Studies show that atherosclerosis begins in childhood, starting as a thin layer of white-yellowish streaks along the artery walls, then progresses from there. Symptoms then show for men during their 40s, and in women, during their 50s and 60s. If the affected organ is the heart, signs are chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, dizziness, palpitations, and abnormal rhythm of heartbeat. If the affected arteries are those that bring blood to the brain and neck, symptoms include feelings of weakness, not being able to think straight, difficulty in speech, balance problems, blurred vision, numbness of the face, arms and legs, severe headache and unconsciousness. Symptoms are brought about by the fact that inadequate blood supply to the tissue causes death of cells.
Atherosclerosis has multiple risk factors, where two factors increases the risk fourfold. Some of those factors are Vitamin B6 deficiency, dietary iodine deficiency, tobacco smoking, genetic abnormalities, obesity, elevated serum levels of particular substances, and air pollution with pollutants that have fine particulates of small diameter. Hyperlipidemia, cigarette smoking and hypertension, when combined, increase the risk seven times. Non-modifiable factors include advanced age, male sex, and having close relatives who have had some complication of the disease.
Prevention is the best countermeasure against the disease, for the situation becomes harder if treatment becomes necessary. A controlled exercise program that focuses on the improvement of blood circulation and functionality of the vessels greatly reduces the risk of developing the disease, in line with control in diet full of cholesterol and medication therapy.
If the disease has already progresses to the point where medication is needed, a physician may resort to surgical procedures to correct the obstruction in the arteries. Usually, non-pharmaceutical means are done first, such as cessation in smoking and practice of regular exercise, and with improvements, have been found to be most effective over the long term.