Atherosclerosis is a chronic and progressive disease that affects the blood vessels, developing silently over the years and manifesting in adults and people of old age.

As with other diseases affecting the cardiovascular system, there are many steps we can take to prevent its onset and avoid complications, which can sometimes be severe.

What Is Atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis and arteriosclerosis, although generally used as synonyms, have different meanings: the term “atherosclerosis” identifies all forms of hardening, thickening, and loss of elasticity of the arterial wall, including atherosclerosis, which is the most common and clinically relevant form.

Atherosclerosis is a disease associated with inhomogeneous plaques (atheromas) that invade the lumen of medium- and large-caliber arteries by depositing on their inner surface.

The plaques cause circulating lipids (cholesterol), inflammatory and muscle cells, and the proliferation of connective tissue, which is naturally present in the human body and typically supports other tissues.

Symptoms of atherosclerosis appear when plaques grow or rupture, obstructing the vessel or reducing blood flow; symptoms vary depending on the location and function of the affected artery.

What Diseases Cause Atherosclerosis? 

Atherosclerosis is initially asymptomatic, often for decades.

Symptomatology develops when lesions within the vessels obstruct blood flow, with different pathologies depending on the site affected.

Coronary artery disease occurs when the coronary arteries are obstructed by an atheroma formed by fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances in the blood.

One of the symptoms that may appear is angina pectoris. This is chest pain that usually follows intense exertion or mental stress and tends to disappear within about 10 minutes, leaving no permanent damage to the heart. It is a possible alarm bell for an incoming full-blown heart attack.

Another symptom might be myocardial infarction. This chest pain is oppressive and constricting in nature, and if it does not diminish with rest, it is an alarming sign; it is due to the failure of blood supply to a part of the heart’s muscle tissue, which “dies.”

Cerebral ischemia occurs when the interruption or reduction of blood flow to the brain leaves it without oxygen: 

  • In the case of stroke, the sudden and prolonged occlusion of the vessel results in reduced function of those areas of the body controlled by the damaged brain area;
  • In the case of transient ischemic attack (TIA), there is a brief or partial interruption of blood supply to a part of the brain. The disturbances that it presents are the same as in a stroke, but they resolve within a few minutes to a few hours, so the affected person fully recovers their function.

Peripheral artery disease is caused by the formation of atherosclerotic plaques in the arteries that supply the lower limbs, where the reduced oxygen supply can lead to pain, difficulty walking (claudication), and limb ischemia. 

Atherosclerosis: What Are the Causes? 

The causes of atherosclerosis are not entirely understood, but a combination of modifiable and nonmodifiable risk factors have been identified, including:

  • Age;
  • Smoking;
  • An unbalanced diet, high in saturated fat and low in vitamins and minerals;
  • Overweight and obesity;
  • Diabetes;
  • Lack of physical activity;
  • Hypertension.

How to Prevent Atherosclerosis?

Aggressive treatment of risk factors with even drastic lifestyle modification, if necessary, dramatically reduces the development of atherosclerosis and allows its progression to slow down, thus preventing the onset of cardiovascular disease.

Lifestyle changes include: 

  • Maintaining normal blood pressure: It is also essential to keep it monitored to notice any changes over time;
  • Quitting the habit of smoking;
  • Lowering the level of “bad” LDL cholesterol; again, remembering to monitor the level with periodic examinations is of paramount importance;
  • Stress management: Many studies have confirmed that stress and anxiety, especially if continuous, play a role in the onset of atherosclerosis;
  • Quitting the consumption, or at least moderate consumption, of alcohol;
  • Maintenance of an optimal body weight;
  • Regular physical activity;
  • Following a healthy, balanced diet, consuming plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, fibers, whole grains, legumes, fish, and lean meats, and limiting consumption of saturated fat, refined carbohydrates, salt, and sugar. 

Are There Cures for Atherosclerosis?

Currently, there are no specific cures that can reverse the process of atherosclerosis. 

However, a specialist visit is essential, as drug treatment is sometimes necessary to correct at least some risk factors and thus slow the progression of atherosclerosis and the occurrence of cardiovascular disease.