Are you at risk for atherosclerosis?

Age-related changes to the heart and blood vessels can put older people at risk for serious health problems. According to the National Institute on Aging, people ages 65 and older are much more likely than younger people to suffer a heart attack, have a stroke, develop heart disease or suffer heart failure. The most common aging-related change is increased stiffness of the large arteries, called arteriosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. 

Atherosclerosis is a disease in which plaque builds up inside the arteries. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances found in the blood. Over time, plaque hardens and narrows the arteries. This limits the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the organs and other parts of the body. Atherosclerosis can lead to serious problems including high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke or even death.

Risk factors

The exact cause of atherosclerosis isn’t known. However, studies show that atherosclerosis is a slow, complex disease that may start in childhood. It develops faster with age. Atherosclerosis may start when certain factors damage the inner layers of the arteries. These factors include:

  • Being a smoker. Smoking can damage and tighten blood vessels, raise cholesterol levels, and raise blood pressure. Smoking also doesn’t allow enough oxygen to reach the body’s tissues.
  • High amounts of certain fats and cholesterol in the blood. High levels of triglycerides in the blood also may raise the risk for atherosclerosis, especially in women.
  • High blood pressure. Blood pressure is considered high if it stays at or above 140/90 mmHg over time. If you have diabetes or chronic kidney disease, high blood pressure is defined as 130/80 mmHg or higher.
  • High amounts of sugar in the blood due to insulin resistance or diabetes. This can contribute to inflammation and slow blood flow.

Other risk factors for atherosclerosis include being overweight, sleep apnea, having an unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity and having a family history of early heart disease.

What can be done?

Atherosclerosis usually doesn’t cause signs and symptoms until it severely narrows or totally blocks an artery. Many people don’t know they have the disease until they have a medical emergency, such as a heart attack or stroke. That’s why working to reduce risk factors that contribute to atherosclerosis is so important. No matter your age, healthy lifestyle habits are an important part of reducing your risk.

Start with controlling health conditions that are linked to the hardening of the arteries such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. Adopting a heart-healthy diet can also help with managing weight and reducing cholesterol. This type of diet includes eating different fruits and vegetables, legumes (beans and peas), whole grains, lean meats and fat-free or low-fat milk and dairy products. It should be low in sodium, added sugar, solid fats and refined grains.

Physical activity is key for improving your fitness level and your health. Consult your doctor to find out what types and amounts of physical activity are safe for you. Smoking cessation is also important to reduce your risk of atherosclerosis. Talk to your doctor about programs and products that can help you quit. Also, try to avoid secondhand smoke.

Possible procedures

Sometimes lifestyle changes alone aren’t enough to prevent atherosclerosis and you may need medical procedures to improve blood flow in your body. Coronary angioplasty is a procedure used to open blocked or narrowed heart arteries. It can improve blood flow to the heart and relieve chest pain. Sometimes a small mesh tube called a stent is placed in the artery to keep it open after the procedure.

Coronary artery bypass grafting is a type of surgery that uses arteries or veins from other areas in the body to bypass narrowed coronary arteries. It can improve blood flow to your heart, relieve chest pain and possibly prevent a heart attack. Bypass grafting also can be used for narrowed or blocked leg arteries.

Carotid endarterectomy is a type of surgery to remove plaque buildup from the carotid arteries in the neck. This procedure restores blood flow to the brain, which can help prevent a stroke.

If you feel you’re at risk for atherosclerosis, talk to your healthcare provider about a medical exam and diagnostic testing options.