Atherosclerosis refers to the formation inside the arteries of fatty deposits called plaque, which can block blood flow. Find out how to treat atherosclerosis, or the hardening of the arteries, to prevent serious health problems like heart disease.

What is atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis occurs when the arteries , or the vessels that carry oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to the body’s organs, become blocked. The exact cause of atherosclerosis (also called the “hardening of the arteries”) is unclear, but damage to the inner layer of the artery may lead to its development.

Atherosclerosis comes  from the build up of fatty substances and other substances inside the arteries. These deposits are called atheromas, atherosclerotic plaque, or just “plaque.” Over time, plaque accumulation makes the affected arteries less flexible and can impede or block blood flow.

Usually, atherosclerosis slowly  gets worse over the years, but it initially doesn’t cause symptoms.

What are the consequences of atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis can develop in any artery in the body, although it is not as common in the small arteries. The consequences are different depending on the body part affected.

When the heart arteries develop atherosclerosis, this is called coronary heart disease. Over time, the heart arteries narrow due to plaque accumulation, which decreases the amount of blood that gets to the heart. If the arteries can’t supply enough blood to the heart, this may lead to angina(lien à la fiche). A complete blockage of a heart artery will  cause a heart attack (infarction), which has more serious consequences.

When atherosclerosis occurs in a brain artery, this can lead to stroke, whereas atherosclerosis in the leg arteries may cause pain when you walk or exercise.

Atherosclerosis also increases the risk of other major health problems. Plaque weakens the arteries , which can rupture and cause an aneurysm or internal bleeding. Plaque can break off and cause a blood clot that suddenly obstructs a vessel, which is called an embolism.

Atherosclerosis risk factors and prevention

Problems from atherosclerosis are more common among men and seniors. Hereditary factors also play an important role in the development of atherosclerosis. These factors are unfortunately not modifiable.

There are risk factors that you can work on. The main modifiable factors for atherosclerosis are high cholesterol, hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, obesity, physical inactivity and stress. You can also adopt a healthy lifestyle to keep your arteries healthy:

  • Don’t smoke: Tobacco is toxic and decreases blood oxygenation. If you need help quitting, don't hesitate to ask your pharmacist or doctor for help.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Avoid eating big meals and limit your intake of high-fat and salty foods. Consult Canada's Food Guide. For personalized recommendations, ask a nutritionist for advice.
  • Achieve or maintain a healthy weight.
  • Get 30 minutes of moderate physical activity multiple times a week.
  • Limit your intake of alcohol and caffeine.
  • Learn to manage stress.
  • Regularly check your cholesterol, your blood pressure, and your blood sugar. High values in these areas are risk factors for cardiovascular disease in addition to being a risk factor for atherosclerosis. If your doctor has prescribed medication to control your atherosclerosis, you need to take it regularly.

Atherosclerosis treatment

As a preventive measure, you need to adopt a healthy and balanced lifestyle to limit the development of atherosclerosis or reduce the risks of this disease.

You also need to control certain health problems to prevent or limit atherosclerosis. Medication will generally be recommended if you have high cholesterol, high blood pressure or diabetes.

Your doctor may also prescribe an antiplatelet drug to reduce the risk of blood clots.

Some serious cases will require surgery to dilate blocked arteries, remove the plaque, or go around an obstruction (i.e., with coronary bypass surgery).

No matter what your situation, you will need to get regular check-ups, and how often you see your doctor will vary depending on several factors, such as your health condition.

If you want more information about atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease, your pharmacist is a valuable health care resource. Don’t hesitate to see your pharmacist for information!

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