Long ago, I used to take walks with my grandfather. He had to stop and sit down every few minutes. He had severe pain in his legs. I remember thinking, "Am I doomed to end up like him?"
Turns out, no.
My grandfather had atherosclerosis. We also call it hardening of the arteries.
Atherosclerosis is the culprit behind all of the major cardiovascular diseases. Atherosclerosis causes:
- Heart attack
- What my grandpa had (peripheral artery disease or PAD)
But there’s good news. Most atherosclerosis causes are preventable.
Atherosclerosis Cause: Genetics Don't Doom You To Get It
Many patients who have atherosclerosis will talk to UVA Health heart disease expert Michael Ragosta, MD, about their family history of atherosclerosis.
"But a family history doesn't doom you to having coronary (heart) disease or atherosclerosis. You can prevent, or reduce your likelihood, of developing atherosclerosis," Ragosta says.
He adds, "The best ways are to take care of yourself and control and treat the risk factors.”
Ragosta serves as director of both interventional cardiology and the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory at UVA Health. His job is to unclog heart arteries that cause chest pain or heart attack.
So what are the atherosclerosis causes? And how do we treat it? Ragosta shares his insights.
What Is Atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis causes plaque to stick to your artery walls, clogging them. Plaque is gunk made up of cholesterol, calcium deposits, and other waste products. Arteries are the blood vessels that bring blood to your brain, heart, and legs.
Ragosta explains: “Many people think of atherosclerosis as a rusty pipe with something dangling inside the artery. But it’s a disease process inside the wall of the artery. As it gets worse, it then narrows the artery, and limits blood flow.”
What Are the Main Atherosclerosis Causes?
Smoking is a big atherosclerosis cause. A World War II veteran, my grandfather took up smoking while serving as a B-29 gunner in the Pacific. He stopped decades later when my grandmother got ovarian cancer.
But the damage to his arteries was already done.
Ragosta explains why smoking is one of the major atherosclerosis causes.
“Smoking injures the blood vessel lining. It speeds up the development of hardening of the arteries. Plus, patients who smoke tend to develop blockages in their heart arteries, in their leg arteries, and the arteries going to their brain. So they're more likely to have a stroke, heart attack, and to have a limited blood supply to their legs.”
Other atherosclerosis causes include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
How Can I Prevent Atherosclerosis?
Most importantly, quit smoking. The next thing is to enjoy a diet full of vegetables and fruits. A diet full of fried fast food is one of the major atherosclerosis causes.
“A plant-based diet can greatly reduce your risk of atherosclerosis,” Ragosta says. “It’s also important to cut back on the amount of saturated fats and animal products that you eat.”
You’ll also want to work with your doctor to control diabetes and high blood pressure.
“Treating high blood pressure and diabetes often requires medication,” Ragosta says. “Statin drugs are one of the mainstay medical treatments for atherosclerosis. Aspirin is also important. It helps prevent clots.”
He adds, “Exercising is another great way to reduce your risk of atherosclerosis.”
Signs of Atherosclerosis
About half of Americans between 45-84 have atherosclerosis. But they don't know it. They often only find out when atherosclerosis causes stroke, heart attack, or PAD symptoms. These include:
- Chest pain & pressure
- Sudden weakness, vision, or speech problems
- Leg pain when walking
Don’t ignore these symptoms. Get medical care.
Worried About Atherosclerosis Causes?
Talk to a doctor about atherosclerosis prevention & treatments.
Atherosclerosis Treatment Expertise
At UVA Health, you’ll get the expertise needed to find and treat severe atherosclerosis.
“The advantage of coming to UVA Health is we take a team approach. Many different specialists collaborate to diagnose, manage, and treat atherosclerosis. This condition can affect different areas of the body. So you need input from many specialties,” Ragosta says.
“We have the latest tools and equipment to diagnose atherosclerosis. And we offer cutting-edge treatments with minimally invasive procedures as well as bypass surgery.”