Hardening of arteries

Blood is the fuel that keeps your body alive and working. It's your blood that transports the oxygen your cells need to survive. To get to your heart and out the rest of your body, blood needs a clear pathway through your arteries. But as you get older and if you eat too many French fries and cheeseburgers your arteries can harden and narrow, fill with plaque leaving less room for blood to flow through. Let's talk today about atherosclerosis.

Your arteries are like the pipes your water flows through to get to your bathroom sink. When the pipes are clear, water flows easily through them. But when rust, minerals, and other debris get stuck in the pipes, it clogs them up, leaving less room for water to flow through. That's why you get nothing more than a drip when you turn on your bathroom sink.

In your arteries, clogs are caused by plaque. Plaque is a substance made up of fat and cholesterol which are found in unhealthy food like those French fries and also bacon. Because plaque is sticky it collects on your artery walls and blocks the flow of blood. Sometimes a clump of plaque breaks off and floats away to a smaller blood vessel leading to your heart or brain. If it gets stuck in that vessel, you can have a heart attack or a stroke. Or, the plaque can weaken an artery wall which is called an aneurysm. If that aneurysm breaks open, you could have a very life threatening bleeding.

How can you tell if you have atherosclerosis? Well, that's the tricky part because often atherosclerosis doesn't cause any symptoms until you've got a blocked artery. And by then, you could already be having a heart attack or stroke.

So that you don't discover the problem too late, see your doctor for regular check-ups. Get your cholesterol screened by age 35 if you're a man, age 45 if you're a women. Also, have your blood pressure checked every one to two years before age 50. And then once a year after that. You may need to have your blood pressure checked even more often if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, or if you have already had a stroke.

Although you can't reverse atherosclerosis once it starts, you can prevent it with some easy lifestyle changes. Eat a balanced diet that's high in heart healthy fruits, vegetables, and fish. Exercise for at least 30 - 60 minutes a day. Stop smoking because that's really bad news for your arteries.

If your cholesterol is high, ask your doctor whether you should be taking cholesterol lowering medication. Lastly, you may also need to take aspirin or another blood thinning drug to prevent clots from forming in your arteries.

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 11/16/2011
  • Mitchell W. Hecht, MD FACP, Internal Medicine private practice in Roswell, GA; author of the nationally-syndicated medical column 'Ask Dr. H.' Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

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