Vascular diseases are among the leading causes of death in the U.S. and worldwide. Examples of vascular diseases include cardiovascular disease (CVD), cerebrovascular disease (CBVD), and peripheral artery disease (PAD). Vascular diseases, or diseases of the blood vessels, lead to many complications including heart attacks and strokes.
What is Atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis (athero- meaning artery and -sclerosis meaning hardening) is the process by which blockages (or plaques) form in arteries. First of all, arteries deliver blood to tissues and organs. Then, plaques narrow arteries, make it difficult for blood to get to through.
Atherosclerosis is a cumulative process that may take years to develop into a serious occlusion. Unfortunately, many of today’s lifestyles favor atherosclerosis and it is a major cause of disease and death in industrialized nations. Likewise, two of the most common causes of death, heart disease and stroke, are a direct result of atherosclerosis. As a result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the number one cause of death in the U.S. and stroke is the fifth.
There are five basic steps to atherosclerosis (or plaque formation). Thus knowing the atherosclerotic process can help individuals understand why certain lifestyle choices increase their risk for heart disease and stroke.
An adverse vascular environment precedes any form of damage. This also includes the presence of toxins, high lipids levels (high LDL cholesterol), and high sugar levels in the blood. Hypertension, the chronic state of high blood pressure, also contributes to this adverse environment.
This refers to damage to the innermost layer of cells of an artery, also known as the vascular endothelium (or the tunica intima). Damage from toxins, like reactive oxygen species (ROS), cause oxidative stress. Meanwhile, damage from hypertension involves friction and radial stretch (stretching) that causes physical damage to the lining.
Once there is vascular damage, lipoproteins (LDL) can deposit into the injury. Consequently, this will trigger an inflammatory (or immune) response from the body to repair the damage and get rid of foreign substances (the deposition).
Initially, damage to the vascular lining and the presence of LDL (the deposit) will trigger an immune response. Then the monocytes, a type of white blood cell, migrate to the area to eat up the LDL. Finally, many of these white blood cells get stuck here and contribute to a pile build up that eventually forms a plaque.
Build-up (cap formation).
The buildup of LDL and white blood cells triggers a reaction from smooth muscle under it, resulting in the formation of a fibrous cap that covers the plaque to prevent blood clots. Furthermore, the atherosclerotic plaque is now complete and may continue to grow and occlude.
Risk Factors for Atherosclerosis
- Hypertension (chronic high blood pressure)
- Sedentary Lifestyles
- High LDL cholesterol
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Old Age
- A family history of Heart Disease
There are many ways to lower the risk of atherosclerosis and thereby vascular diseases. Preventive measures include a range of healthy lifestyle changes such as exercise, eating more fruits and vegetables, and even meditating. Most importantly, here are some tips to lower your risk of atherosclerosis:
The benefits of exercise are vast, ranging from cellular to systems levels. For one thing, exercise helps regulate blood sugar and cholesterol levels, both of which contribute to an adverse vascular environment. Most importantly, regular exercise also reduces blood pressure, stress levels and promotes a healthy weight, all risk factors for atherosclerosis.
2. Eating Healthy-
Unhealthy diets are a major contributor to obesity and type 2 diabetes. Consequently, both obesity and type 2 diabetes, are associated with a series of other risk factors like high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, and high blood sugar. Meanwhile, a diet high in fiber from fruits and vegetables has been found to lower one’s risk for atherosclerosis and vascular diseases.
3. Load up on antioxidants-
Because antioxidants found in plants can counteract oxidative stress and reduce the risk of vascular injury, eating lots of fruits and vegetables can lower risk for atherosclerosis.
4. Lower Stress-
Stress in the silent killer. This is because it contributes to high blood pressure, unstable blood sugar, and oxidative stress. Finding ways to counteract stress and be happier are countermeasures to atherosclerosis. This includes exercise, meditation, a relaxing massage, acupuncture, and positive social interactions.