What You Can Do to Prevent Atherosclerosis
Your good health has an enemy—atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is common. And its
effects can be very serious. This condition can lead to strokes, heart attacks, and
death. But 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 artery walls. These deposits are called plaque. Plaque can
eventually slow or block the flow of blood. This blockage is atherosclerosis. It can
affect any artery in your body. When atherosclerosis affects the arteries that supply
blood to the heart, it's called coronary artery disease. Two things may occur where
plaque develops. Plaque may build up over time and narrow the heart artery. Or the
plaque may break open (rupture), causing a blood clot to form on the plaque's surface.
If either of these things occur, it may lead to a blockage of an artery. This can
lead to a heart attack or stroke.
How is cholesterol measured?
When you should start having your cholesterol tested and how often you should have
it tested depends on your risk factors and family history. Testing is done with a
blood test. The test should measure total cholesterol, LDL ("bad") cholesterol, HDL
("good") cholesterol, and triglycerides. Talk with your healthcare provider about
your target cholesterol levels.
Am I at risk?
These things 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, get help to quit. Scientists have shown smoking damages the artery walls.
This can lead to atherosclerosis. This makes it easier for plaque to build up. Smoking is even
more risky when you have other risk factors such as high blood pressure or diabetes.
If you want help quitting, talk with your healthcare provider. They have information
on medicines, nicotine replacement products, and programs to make it easier. Also
stay away from places where there is cigarette smoke. Research suggests that smoke
from others can increase your risk for atherosclerosis. Stopping smoking doesn't mean
just tobacco or cigarettes. E-cigarettes and vaping can both cause inflammation of
the arteries. So can inhaling smoke from other nontobacco products.
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 limit how
much salt and sugar you eat. Be careful with processed foods such as 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, as well as 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 2.5
hours of moderate-intensity exercise per week. For instance, you can exercise 30 to
40 minutes at a time, 4 to 5 days a week. But before you start, ask your healthcare
provider's advice about what kind of exercise program is right for you.
Get regular checkups. Have your healthcare provider 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 provider.
Control diabetes with your healthcare provider's help. People who have diabetes develop
atherosclerosis more quickly. If you have diabetes, control your blood sugar level
Will I know if I have it?
Symptoms appear only after the damage has been done. So don't wait for symptoms to
occur before doing something about atherosclerosis. Begin by making the above lifestyle
changes even if you feel well.
Together, you and your healthcare provider can decide what steps you need to take
to stay healthy.