What do our arteries do?
The human body is an incredible machine and the thing that keeps it all going is the heart. This organ is our pump and the blood pumped around our body by this pump is carried around via arteries and veins. Therefore, it is imperative that any disease to these arteries is prevented or treated as a matter of urgency.
Diseases that can affect the arteries
Any form of arterial disease is dangerous due to the death of organs by oxygen starvation. This can happen when there is a blockage in the artery.
The most common artery disease in the Western world is hardening of the arteries. It is most commonly caused by age but can also be influenced by other factors as well, affecting the rate of progressive illness. Hardening of the arteries is called arteriosclerosis.
Another disease is atheroma which is a condition in which fatty deposits can be found on the walls of the arteries. This increases generally as the body ages.
Cholesterol is a naturally occurring ingredient of the blood and, if it leaks into the inside of the artery, it forms a fatty streak that is the beginning of the atheromatous process. As this streak grows, its surface may break down, triggering a clotting mechanism that causes a mixture of fibrous tissue and fatty tissue to form in the arterial wall. This is called an atheromatous plaque. When this continues to grow, it begins to block the blood filled space of the artery.
Eventually, there are changes in the deep arterial wall where fibrous tissue forms on the wall side of the atheromatous plaque which then progresses to the stage where it is blocking the interior of the artery. Hence, a blockage of the artery occurs. Even when there is a partial blockage, the flow of blood past the obstruction is hindered and the resulting clot may cause a total blockage known as a thrombosis.
There is also the possibility of an embolism which occurs when parts of an atheromatous plaque dislodge and travel toward a smaller artery which may then become blocked.
Atheroma is most likely to happen in parts of the arterial wall that are most prone to stress and movement such as sites where arteries branch off into smaller arteries. The lining at these sites is subject to greater stretching which allows more cholesterol to invade the wall.
What happens if the artery is blocked?
Every organ in the body is a likely area of arterial disease because oxygen is supplied to them via the arteries. If atheroma disrupts blood supply to any limb or organ, then it will certainly die. If this happens to tissue, it is known as infarction. If it happens to a limb, it is commonly known as gangrene.
For obvious reasons, the most severe problems from the effects of atheroma are those affecting the heart, the brain, the legs, and the aorta.
Because the two coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart are under more stress than any other artery, this organ is particularly susceptible to atheroma or blockage of the arteries. When a coronary artery becomes blocked, it may be called a coronary thrombosis or a myocardial infarction. The myocardium is the heart muscle; thus, when it is deprived of blood, it dies and is called an infarction.
Another problem which affects the heart is when the atheroma is causing a partial blockage where there is only enough blood getting through to keep the heart supplied when it is at rest. When the body is active, it increases the need for blood in the heart and poor supply or no supply creates a starvation of oxygen. This creates pain in the heart and this pain is known as angina pectoris or just as angina. Often, the conditions known as angina and myocardial infarction are lumped together under the name of ischemic heart disease as they are both results of lack of oxygen. Ischemia means a lack of oxygen without total deprivation.
In the brain, atherosclerosis can cause a stroke. Strokes may be minor or fatal and may happen because an artery has become blocked as a result of atheroma or embolism. It can also occur as a result of an artery leaking blood into the brain because of a weakness in the wall.
If the legs are affected, they become very painful, particularly during exercise. If the atheroma in the legs is severe, it may result in gangrene which may then require amputation of the leg as a consequence.
Two things can happen if the atheroma affects the aorta. The wall of the aorta may balloon out because of the weakening in the wall. This creates a swelling known as an aneurysm. Although most aneurysms are found in the abdomen, they may also be found in the chest. The aneurysm may continue to expand and then leak with disastrous results. The only treatment in this incidence is surgery.
The two most well established risk factors for atheroma are high blood pressure and diabetes. There are also some genetic factors which appear to put people at higher risk. Cholesterol levels, if not kept low, may also put you at a higher risk.
Prevention of artery disease
There are some things that a person can do to prevent the development of atheromatous conditions such as getting effective treatment for high blood pressure and diabetes. A doctor may also prescribe medication to lower cholesterol levels.
The other important thing to do to prevent or postpone atheroma is to stop smoking, or never start smoking, as nicotine can counteract the positive effects of other measures. As well as reducing the chance of heart disease, general health will improve.