Atherosclerosis, aka arteriosclerosis or “hardening of the arteries”, causes more health problems and death than any other disease entity in our modern world. The odds are that anyone reading this article will be afflicted by the ravages of this problem; they may even die because of it.
There is reason, therefore, to learn something about this vascular disease that affects a person’s arteries. Once we know something about this health enemy, we have a chance to hold off its progress, possibly eliminating its effects.
Understanding How Atherosclerosis Develops
The first thing that we must understand is that this disease is unavoidable. Even autopsies on very young adults have shown the early beginnings of atherosclerosis in the arteries. We have to accept its presence in our bodies and deal with it.
The body’s circulatory system is a giant plumbing conglomerate consisting of a pump (the heart) and a series of various sized tubes that carry the blood to the organs and then back to the heart. The thick walled vessels or conduits going from the heart to the tissues are called “arteries” and the thin walled vessels that return blood to the heart are the “veins”.
Atherosclerosis works on the arteries by building up material called “plaque” in the artery walls. When this build-up of material gets large enough, it can cause a complete or a partial blockage. Naturally, the tissue dependent on this compromised arterial flow will suffer, since the arteries’ job is to bring oxygen and nutrients to the tissue so it can function.
If, for example, the tissue in question is the heart, then a heart attack results. If the tissue is the kidney, then kidney failure and dialysis can be the result; and so on with other parts of the body.
The Elements that Make Up Atherosclerosis
So how does this happen? Were we born with this problem? Can we do things to prevent the consequences of this disease process?
The first thing to know is that you were not born with hardening of the arteries. A young child’s arteries are perfectly clean—there is no plaque present. So this is a health problem that is acquired.
Now let’s look at these plaques or blockages themselves. When we do this we find that they all have certain basic elements. There are remnants of white blood cells (inflammatory cells) and proteins. There is cholesterol and other complex fats. There is calcium. There is fibrous tissue.
There are biochemical mediators that tend to make blood clot and make platelets stick to the walls of the arteries. There are platelets (the elements in the blood stream that are the first to start the clotting process), and platelet breakdown pieces. There can be red blood cells as well. Smooth muscle cells from the middle layer of the artery migrate into the plaque area. Mix all these together and you have a recipe for plaque.
How Does Artery Plaque Buildup Begin
Next, let’s look at a normal artery. Under the microscope we do not see these plaque elements at all! So how does this process start in the arteries? And perhaps even more importantly, why do these plaques continue to grow and block the arteries that supply our vital organs?
In part 2 of our series on this topic, we will answer these questions.
Dr. Robert W. Ruess is the Vein Specialist at Five Star Vein Institute that has two convenient locations in Las Vegas and Mesquite, Nevada. Go to www.fivestarvein.com to find out how to schedule a free consultation to learn more about your vein health.