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Heart Disease Health Center

Hardened Arteries: It's About More Than Heart Disease

Other conditions raise your risk for hardened arteries, also called atherosclerosis.
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Obesity. Being obese raises the risk of atherosclerosis in the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle. Abdominal obesity also makes a person more likely to develop high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol. Once these various problems come into play, they can further damage the blood vessels and worsen atherosclerosis. Keeping weight under control is crucial, Tsimikas says. "If people can commit to eat less and walk for 20 minutes every day, it will make a big difference."

Smoking. Smoking is linked to progression of atherosclerosis. It harms the inner lining of blood vessels, increases risk of injury to the inner lining of arteries, raises LDL cholesterol, and lowers HDL (good) cholesterol. "If you look at patients under 50 with heart attacks, almost all of them are smokers," Tsimikas says. "Smoking can cause heart disease by damaging your blood vessels and causing more plaque and blood clots to form inside blood vessels." The good news: risk of heart disease decreases quickly after a smoker gives up cigarettes, Tsimikas says.

Keeping blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, and diabetes under control also results in big payoffs, Tsimikas says, even if your atherosclerosis has already led to heart disease. "If you control the risk factors more aggressively, you're more likely to do better in terms of preventing a new heart attack or not needing a bypass or other procedure."

Perkins-Cooper's own doctor calls her a poster child for good health. After that shocking diabetes diagnosis, she dropped 32 pounds -- no more fried Southern food and regular dessert, she says. She lowered her cholesterol from a high of 225. She began exercising, too. "I'm a very stubborn person," she says. "When I put my mind to it, I can get things done. I just revamped my whole lifestyle." 

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Reviewed on March 31, 2008

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