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Atherosclerosis: Your Arteries Age by Age

Hardening of the arteries starts earlier than you may think.

Atherosclerosis in Your 20s and 30s

Atherosclerosis is the last thing on most young adults' minds. But early forms of atherosclerosis are frequently present in our 20s and 30s.

Almost no one suffers complications from atherosclerosis at this age. However, smoking, obesity, and other risk factors clearly impair your arteries' function.

Experts don't advocate indiscriminately treating young people for atherosclerosis. It is important to realize that the process is often well under way before we finish high school. Even at these tender ages, changing behavior makes a difference.

Atherosclerosis in Your 40s and 50s

In men after age 50, the rate of atherosclerosis development accelerates markedly. In women, this increased risk is delayed until age 60.

By this time, even if you don't have any evidence of atherosclerosis, your lifetime chances of developing its complications are greater than 50%.

Risk factors are important at any age. But in our 40s and 50s, they begin to really count. For example, if you have multiple risk factors at age 45, your chance of having some atherosclerosis is higher than 80%.

Don't despair, though: There's still time to change. Even after a lifetime of bad habits, adopting a healthy lifestyle in middle age leads quickly to a large reduction in cardiovascular risk.

Atherosclerosis: Age 60 and Up

In our older years, arteries just aren't as vibrant. They become stiffer, less flexible. Perhaps most important, the endothelium doesn't do its crucial jobs as well. After age 60, the balance tips toward progressive atherosclerosis.

This aging of the arteries means a much higher risk of complications from atherosclerosis. In fact, almost 85% of deaths caused by atherosclerosis are in people over age 65.

After age 65, women quickly catch up to men in the risk from atherosclerosis complications.

You may think that at this age, there's little you can do to improve your arteries' health. Think again! Over age 70, eating a Mediterranean diet and increasing activity level cuts the risk of death by two-thirds.

In older age, many people will require medicines to optimally reduce their risk. Drugs to reduce cholesterol or blood pressure can significantly slow down atherosclerosis and prevent complications.

Atherosclerosis: The Fountain of Youth?

If there is a fountain of youth for your arteries, it's exercise. You've heard again and again that exercise is good for you. Here's why it's good for your arteries.

  • Exercise increases high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the "good" cholesterol. HDL cholesterol acts as a scavenger, pulling bad cholesterol away from arteries.
  • Exercise lowers blood pressure.
  • Regular physical activity slows down or even prevents the development of diabetes.
  • Aerobic exercise reduces inflammation in your arteries. Remember, inflammation is the reason plaques become unstable and cause blood clots. Exercise "cools off" the cells inside plaques that cause inflammation.
  • Exercise helps you maintain normal weight. Excess weight is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
  • Exercise improve fitness and heart health.

Don't let your arteries retire early. Let them know you mean business by taking steps toward a healthy lifestyle. See your doctor and address your risk factors. Then, turn back the clock by giving your arteries a regular workout. They'll thank you later, and you may add years to your life.

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Reviewed on December 04, 2007

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