Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States and of its many causes, atherosclerosis tops the list. Atherosclerosis is a fatty build-up on blood vessel walls. It’s linked to a wide range of serious health issues, and when it causes thickening of the coronary arteries — the large blood vessels that oxygenate the heart — a heart attack can occur. The good news is that with early detection and lifestyle changes, atherosclerosis is potentially reversible. Here’s how.
Early Detection Matters
The earlier atherosclerosis is identified, the more likely it is that lifestyle changes will help a patient reverse course. What symptoms may signal an issue?
When the arteries of the legs become clogged with plaque, circulation is impaired and causes pain during exercise, called claudication. Because the legs bear the brunt of daily activity, pain due to claudication may be noticeable before traditional symptoms of heart disease like chest pain occur.
The arteries in the lower back are magnets for fatty build-up. This means less oxygen is delivered to the surrounding muscles and vertebral disks, resulting in chronic soreness.
Neck and Jaw Pain
The vagus nerve that regulates heart rhythm also transmits pain signals from the heart to the neck and jaw. It’s the same nerve responsible for causing the left arm pain associated with heart attacks, and it reflects decreased circulation to the heart.
Making Meaningful Lifestyle Changes
Up to 80 percent of heart disease due to atherosclerosis may be preventable with lifestyle changes including:
A diet that emphasizes plant-based foods, limits sodium and saturated fat and eliminates most trans-fat — the type found in fried and processed foods — helps control cholesterol and plaque.
Thirty minutes or more of moderate daily activity helps maintain a normal weight, improves levels of heart-protective good cholesterol and keeps blood pressure in check.
Statin drugs are the gold standard for treating atherosclerosis. They reduce the bad cholesterol that contributes to the formation of fatty plaques.
Smoking damages the delicate lining of arteries, attracting plaque and encouraging the formation of blood clots that may lead to a heart attack.
Anyone showing early symptoms of heart disease should see a doctor. The sooner treatment begins, the better the chances of success.