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Atherosclerosis -- The Silent Killer

Just what is atherosclerosis anyway?

A very common question – what is atherosclerosis? Just the fact that so many people ask this question is alarming in itself; however, the consequences of this disease cause millions of deaths across the world each year.

The actual name atherosclerosis derives from the Greek words athero, which means gruel or paste, and sclerosis meaning hardening or hardness. Atherosclerosis is the result of deposits of fatty wax like materials, cholesterol, our body’s waste products, calcium and other substances. These deposits accumulate and build up along the inside of our arteries. This build-up is commonly referred to as plaque. In simple terms, think about the lime-scale that builds up inside your plumbing at home. This can cause malfunctions of domestic appliances such as washing machines and dishwashers. If you live in an area with “heavy” water, you may have to frequently clean out the filters of your machines.

What causes atherosclerosis?

One of the frightening things about atherosclerosis is that it is an asymptomatic disease, meaning without any symptoms. That’s right – you don’t feel a thing! Often the first symptom may be a heart attack or stroke. It is a long, slow, complex disease that often starts in childhood and progresses through the years. In others, the progress is much more rapid. Some scientists believe its onset is caused by damage to the inner layer of the artery. But how can the inner layer of an artery become damaged?

There are three proven ways in which the inner most layer of an artery can become damaged:

  • high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood
  • high blood pressure
  • smoking
  • With damage the artery wall, fatty deposits, calcium, cholesterol and other substances accumulate over the injured area. These deposits, together with other substances produced by the body as a consequence, may become large enough to thicken the innermost lining of the artery. This in turn will reduce the internal diameter of the artery through which blood flows, thus causing a decrease and a reduction of oxygen supply.

    What is atherosclerosis and what are its consequences?

    As we have seen, with atherosclerosis plaques form along the inner lining of the arteries. Sometimes the plaques may weaken and become unstable and eventually rupture. When this occurs, the contents of the plaque, when coming into contact with the blood flow within the artery, form a clot or thrombus. Such clot may totally block the blood flow. If the clot breaks off and travels through the artery to another part of the body, this is called an embolus. If the clot blocks an artery to the heart, a heart attack will be the result. If the clot blocks an artery that supplies the brain the result will be a stroke. Finally if the clot blocks a peripheral artery of the leg, walking may become and difficult and gangrene.

    There is much debate just lately as to whether diet, in particular our intake of fats and cholesterol, is such an important issue. We have the big medical establishments saying we should limit eating foods such as red meat, eggs and cheese and on the other hand apparently healthy people eating a high protein, low carb diet. Such diets are frequently based on meat, fish, cheese and eggs.

    To avoid any confusion, it is a safe approach to eat a healthy well balanced diet and pay particular attention to the way in which the food is prepared. Limit frying and opt for steaming or broiling. Regular exercise is also highly recommended and if you smoke: stop. These measures will greatly help to keep your cholesterol under control and make the progression of atherosclerosis less of an issue. the site that tells you how it is! Articles, tips, advice and the latest news on how to take care of your heart. You can get articles like this in your mailbox each month by submitting to our eZine “The Web’s Heart”