Cholesterol and Artery Plaque Buildup
How Cholesterol Plaque Attacks
Once established, cholesterol plaques can behave in different ways.
- They can stay within the artery wall. The cholesterol plaque may stop growing, or may grow into the wall, out of the path of blood.
- Plaques can grow in a slow, controlled way into the path of blood flow. Slow-growing cholesterol plaques may or may not ever cause any symptoms -- even with severely blocked arteries.
- Cholesterol plaques can suddenly rupture -- the worst case scenario. This will allow blood to clot inside an artery. In the heart, this causes a heart attack. In the brain, it causes a stroke.
Cholesterol plaques from atherosclerosis cause the three main kinds of cardiovascular disease:
Coronary artery disease -- Stable cholesterol plaques in the heart's arteries can cause no symptoms or can cause chest pain called angina. Sudden cholesterol plaque rupture and clotting causes blocked arteries. When that happens, heart muscle dies. This is a heart attack, also called myocardial infarction.
Cerebrovascular disease -- Cholesterol plaque can rupture in one of the brain's arteries. This causes a stroke, leading to permanent brain damage. Blockages can also cause transient ischemic attacks, or TIAs. A TIA has symptoms like those of stroke. But they are temporary and there is no permanent brain damage. However, patients who experience a TIA are at a much higher risk of a subsequent stroke, so medical attention and care is essential.
Peripheral arterial disease -- Blocked arteries in the legs can cause pain on walking and poor wound healing due to poor circulation. Severe disease may lead to amputations.
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.