What You Can Do to Prevent Atherosclerosis
Your good health has an enemy — atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is common. And its
effects can be very serious. They can cause strokes, heart attacks, and death. The
good news is that you can take steps to protect yourself from this disease.
What is atherosclerosis?
The inside walls of healthy arteries are smooth and clean. This makes it easy to transport
the blood your body needs. But arteries can become clogged. Fatty substances like
cholesterol can stick to arteries. These deposits are called plaque. They can eventually
slow or block the flow of blood. This blockage is atherosclerosis. It can affect any
medium- to large-sized artery in your body. When atherosclerosis affects the arteries
that supply blood to the heart, it is called coronary artery disease.
How is cholesterol measured?
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends that all adults older than
20 have their cholesterol level checked every 5 years. This is done with a blood test
done after fasting for 9 hours to 12 hours. The test should include total cholesterol,
LDL ("bad") cholesterol, HDL ("good") cholesterol, and triglycerides. Talk with your
doctor about your target cholesterol levels.
Am I at risk?
These factors put you at greater risk for atherosclerosis:
Having more than 1 risk factor can increase your risk even more. You can control most
of the above risk factors. The following tips can help prevent atherosclerosis and
improve your general health. If you have atherosclerosis, you may be able to stop
it from getting worse.
If you smoke, stop. Scientists think that smoking causes atherosclerosis because it
damages the artery walls. This makes it easier for plaque to build up. Smoking is even
more risky when you have other risk factors like high blood pressure or diabetes.
Quit smoking today. If you want help quitting, talk with your doctor. He or she has
information on medications and programs to make it easier. Also, avoid places where
there is cigarette smoke. Research suggests that smoke from others can increase your
risk of atherosclerosis.
Make changes to your diet. A diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol can raise
your cholesterol levels. When you have high cholesterol, there may be more plaque
to line artery walls and narrow your arteries. The American Heart Association recommends
that you reduce the amount of meat, eggs, milk, and other dairy products in your diet.
Check food labels to find the amount of saturated fat in a product. Also, avoid large
amounts of salt and sugar. Be careful with processed foods like frozen dinners. They
can be high in fat, sugar, salt, and cholesterol. Choose lots of fresh or frozen fruits
and vegetables, lean meats and fish, and whole grains like oats and whole wheat. Choose
unsaturated vegetable oils like canola oil instead of saturated fats like butter.
Exercise regularly. Regular aerobic exercise can help fight atherosclerosis by reducing
the amount of fat in your blood, lowering your blood pressure and cholesterol, and
controlling your weight. It's never too late to start exercising. Brisk walking, swimming,
and bicycling are good choices. It's OK to start slowly and work up to at least 30
minutes, 5 days a week. But before you begin, ask your doctor's advice about what
kind of exercise program is right for you.
Get regular checkups. Have your doctor check your blood pressure and cholesterol.
High blood pressure can further complicate atherosclerosis by causing artery walls
to harden and thicken. This condition is called arteriosclerosis. Talk about your
health and your risk factors for atherosclerosis with your doctor.
Control diabetes with your doctor's help. People who have diabetes develop atherosclerosis
more quickly. If you have diabetes, control your blood sugar level carefully.
Will I know if I have it?
Because symptoms appear only after the damage has been done, do not wait for symptoms
to develop before doing something about atherosclerosis. Begin by making the above
lifestyle changes even if you feel well.
Together, you and your doctor can decide what steps you need to take to stay healthy.