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Prevent atherosclerosis in good time

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  • What is arteriosclerosis?
  • What are the symptoms of arteriosclerosis?
  • What causes arteriosclerosis?
  • How is arteriosclerosis diagnosed?
  • How dangerous is arteriosclerosis?
  • Is arteriosclerosis curable?
  • What can I do to prevent the deposits from forming in the first place?

You think only old people have hardening of the arteries? None! The deposits that increase the risk of heart attack and stroke as we age begin at a young age. That’s why it’s time to tackle it now.

We will clarify with Prof. Dr. how to keep your blood vessels fit and healthy. med. Markus Steinbauer, chief physician of vascular surgery at the Barmwärme Brüder Hospital in Regensburg and president of the German Society for Vascular Surgery and Vascular Medicine (DGG).

What is arteriosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is often simply referred to as “calcification” of the blood vessels. It is a generalized vascular disease that can in principle affect all arteries in the body (i.e. blood vessels that transport blood away from the heart), says Prof. Steinbauer. This causes small damage to the vascular cells, which the body can repair, but in many cases plaques form in the affected areas – these are deposits of various fats and cell residues. The plaques can calcify and continue to grow over time, causing the blood vessels to become narrower and blood circulation to be disrupted.

What are the symptoms of arteriosclerosis?

Arteriosclerosis is known to cause heart attacks, circulatory problems in the legs and strokes, i.e. cardiovascular diseases. This happens when the plaques break off and are flushed through the bloodstream until they get stuck again, thus completely blocking the vessel. If a vessel near the heart or head is affected, a heart attack or stroke may occur.

But it doesn’t have to happen that the plaques come off. It is also possible to have such constrictions but still remain symptom-free for a long time or even always.

If the vessel is not completely closed and the blood circulation is only partially disturbed, what is known as intermittent claudication sometimes occurs. Because in this case the legs are no longer properly supplied with blood and the oxygen supply to the surrounding muscles and tissue is no longer fully guaranteed, pain often occurs. That’s why those affected often stop to recover – and to look at the shop windows on the side of the road.

What causes arteriosclerosis?

“Arteriosclerosis is a disease that occurs due to risk factors,” says Prof. Steinbauer. Risk factors are various life circumstances that make it more likely that a certain disease will develop. However, it does not mean that arteriosclerosis inevitably develops if a risk factor is present and, conversely, that it does not occur if no risk factors apply.

These are some of the known risk factors:

  • Advanced age
  • Male gender
  • Smoke
  • Overweight
  • high blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Fat metabolism disorders

Important: Even though symptoms usually only become noticeable as we get older, calcification starts much earlier. Studies show that more and more young people – starting in their mid-20s – have fatty deposits in their blood vessels. This is mainly due to the widespread Western lifestyle, which is characterized by fatty fast food and a lack of exercise. If these vascular changes last for years, symptoms increase as you get older. The only way to prevent this is to make a healthy lifestyle a habit as early as possible!

How is arteriosclerosis diagnosed?

Ultrasound shows whether a blood vessel is calcified or not. “An ultrasound examination is harmless,” says Prof. Steinbauer. He recommends having a vascular check done from the age of 55 or 60 if there is an increased risk of arteriosclerosis in the family. The carotid artery in particular is often examined for calcifications, as in the event of a plaque the brain is in close proximity and the risk of a stroke increases.

Another option is to determine the ABI index, i.e. measuring the blood pressure in the leg. “You can often find changes even though the patients don’t feel anything yet,” says the specialist. In general, high blood pressure increases the risk of arteriosclerosis. That is why it is important to diagnose such high-risk diseases, which also include diabetes and lipid metabolism disorders.

How dangerous is arteriosclerosis?

Although vascular calcification is somehow on everyone’s lips, it is not as scary as the diagnosis of cancer. Atherosclerosis is a serious disease because anyone with a pathological measurement on their leg has a 4 to 6 times risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.

“In Western countries, most people die from vascular diseases, not from cancer,” warns the specialist. This makes it all the more important to avoid risk factors and treat underlying diseases.

Is arteriosclerosis curable?

The resulting deposits cannot simply disappear again, and arteriosclerosis is currently not curable. “So-called secondary prophylaxis is about preventing arteriosclerosis from progressing,” says the expert. To achieve this, it is important to treat the underlying risk disease, possibly also with medication.

In severe cases, narrowing of the blood vessels can be repaired surgically or widened by inserting a stent. However, such steps are only taken if the heart vessels or carotid artery are involved and the risk of a heart attack or stroke is too great, or if the circulatory disorder in the legs has reached a threatening stage.

“If patients don’t have any symptoms, we tend to hold back on dilating the vessels,” says the vascular surgeon. Then conservative therapies come into play for the time being. This means reducing risk factors through lots of sport, exercise and weight loss. “They sometimes help better than drug therapies,” says Prof. Steinbauer.

What can I do to prevent the deposits from forming in the first place?

The be-all and end-all for prevention is to minimize the risk factors as best as possible or to avoid them completely. The first priority here is: Don’t smoke! You can read how to stop smoking here.

It is also important to ensure sufficient exercise and a healthy diet throughout your life because once plaque is present, it can no longer be eliminated.

Endurance exercise against arteriosclerosis: Those who are regularly active and moving keep their blood vessels clean. Exercise reduces blood pressure over time, which is otherwise a risk factor for arteriosclerosis. Many studies also examine the effect between physical activity and arteriosclerosis and confirm how good exercise is for your body.

“Natural movement is best here,” says Prof. Steinbauer, explaining that pumping in the gym does not have the same effect when it comes to vascular calcification. “Consistent endurance exercise is ideal. But any movement is better than none,” says the specialist. For example, even walking for half an hour at a time is absolutely great!

Mediterranean diet against arteriosclerosis: In order to prevent arteriosclerosis as best as possible, it is important to pay attention to a balanced diet. Studies show that a more plant-based diet is optimal for the arteries. So try to include lots of vegetables and sometimes fish in your diet, and less fat and meat. When it comes to alcohol, the following applies: keep consumption in moderation. For women, one glass of wine is okay, for men up to two is okay.

Unfortunately, arteriosclerosis affects more and more people, which is why it is even more important to take preventive action. With the right diet and enough exercise, you can keep your arteries free of calcium and therefore healthy.

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