Cholesterol and Artery Plaque Buildup
Preventing Cholesterol Plaques
Atherosclerosis and cholesterol plaques are progressive -- meaning they get worse with time. They are also preventable. Nine risk factors are to blame for up to 90% of all heart attacks including:
- high cholesterol
- high blood pressure
- abdominal obesity ("spare tire")
- not eating many fruits and vegetables
- excessive consumption of alcohol -- more than one drink per day for women, or more than one or two drinks per day for men
- not getting regular physical activity
You may notice almost all of these have something in common: you can do something about them. Experts agree that reducing your risk factors leads to a lower risk of heart disease.
For people at moderate or higher risk from cholesterol plaques, taking a baby aspirin a day can be important. Aspirin helps prevent clots from forming. Ask your doctor before starting aspirin, as it can have side effects.
Shrinking Cholesterol Plaques
Once a cholesterol plaque is there, it's generally there to stay. With effective treatment, though, plaque buildup may slow down or stop.
Some evidence shows that, with aggressive treatment, cholesterol plaques can even shrink slightly. In one major study, cholesterol plaques shrank 10% in size after a 50% reduction in blood cholesterol levels.
The best way to treat cholesterol plaques is to prevent them from forming or progressing. That can be done with lifestyle changes and, if needed, medication.
Drugs and Lifestyle Changes to Reduce Risk for Atherosclerosis
Reducing the risk factors that lead to atherosclerosis will slow or stop the process. Ways to reduce the amount of cholesterol in your body involves taking cholesterol and blood pressure medication, eating a healthy diet, getting frequent exercise, and not smoking. These treatments won't unclog arteries. They do, though, lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Various drugs can lower cholesterol levels including:
- bile acid sequestrants
Of these, statins are the most frequently prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs.
Procedures to Unclog Arteries
Using invasive procedures, doctors can see and unclog arteries, or provide a path for blood to go around blocked arteries. Treatments include:
- Angiography, angioplasty, and stenting: Using a catheter inserted into an artery in the leg, doctors can enter diseased arteries. This procedure is called cardiac catheterization. Blocked arteries are visible on a live X-ray screen. A tiny balloon on the catheter can be inflated to compress cholesterol plaque in the blocked arteries. Placing metal stents helps to keep open blocked arteries.
- Bypass surgery: Surgeons harvest a healthy blood vessel from the leg or chest. They use the healthy vessel to bypass blocked arteries.
These procedures involve a risk of complications. They are usually saved for people with significant symptoms or limitations caused by the cholesterol plaques of atherosclerosis.