Lots of people worry about atherosclerosis -- or hardening of the arteries
-- as a factor in heart
disease and stroke. But did you know that diabetes, high
cholesterol, high blood pressure, a sedentary lifestyle, and obesity are
all major risk factors for atherosclerosis?
Take the case of Barbie Perkins-Cooper, 57, a writer from Mount Pleasant,
S.C. When she discovered that she had type 2
diabetes, she also discovered that she was at risk for atherosclerosis.
What's worse: her high cholesterol levels, obesity, and sedentary lifestyle put
her at even greater risk.
Preventing a heart attack is a lot easier when you -- and your doctor -- know exactly what's going on in the vessels that carry blood throughout your body. Are they blocked with plaque or free-flowing? To find out, your doctor may recommend a high-tech imaging test that shows a clear image of your arteries. Here's what you need to know about them.
Perkins-Cooper is hardly alone. Many people who are eventually diagnosed
with atherosclerosis have at least one of these other problems. And that's not
all. Once you develop atherosclerosis, each of these conditions can worsen the
damage to your arteries. Here's how:
Diabetes. People with diabetes tend to develop atherosclerosis
earlier and more extensively than those without the disease. In fact, people
with diabetes -- especially women -- are two to six times more likely to get
atherosclerosis. Patients with type 1 and type 2 diabetes can also develop the
disease in small blood vessels, such as those in the eyes and kidneys.
Diabetes is a major predictor of how well patients fare with atherosclerosis
and heart disease. "Once you have a heart
attack, for example, you're going to do a lot worse than if you don't have
diabetes," says Sam Tsimikas, MD, professor of clinical medicine and
director of vascular medicine at the University of California, San Diego.
High LDL cholesterol. High levels of LDL, the bad kind of
cholesterol, promote plaque formation in artery linings -- the signature
symptom of atherosclerosis. Too much LDL can worsen atherosclerosis and
increase the chance of heart disease. "It is a major risk factor,"
Tsimikas says. "The higher the LDL, the more likely you are to get a heart
attack. The lower the LDL, the more likely you are not to get one."
pressure. This condition is associated with inflammation and increased
damage to the lining of the vessels because they're under higher pressure,
Tsimikas says. A vessel is like a garden hose, he says. "If it's always
under high pressure, eventually, it's going to get damaged. If there are other
risk factors -- diabetes and high cholesterol circulating in that pipe --
eventually, all of that is going to clog it up."