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Overcoming Cardiovascular Disease

If you've been diagnosed with stroke, heart attack, angina or PAD, you may be in shock. But the right medical care can prevent future problems.

A Systemic Disease, Affecting the Entire Body

Arteriosclerosis sets the stage for many grave medical problems.

  • Angina develops if there is a partial blockage of the arteries that supply the heart and muscle. Like any organ, the heart needs a good supply of blood to work. If it doesn't get that blood, you'll feel squeezing pain in the chest and other symptoms. If your symptoms are predictable -- occurring only when you're under emotional or physical stress -- it's considered stable angina. Unstable angina is more dangerous. It is more severe and occurs even when you are resting. Also, some people may not even feel their angina, such as those with diabetes.
  • Heart attacks (or myocardial infarctions) occur if the artery supplying the heart is partially or completely blocked. The heart might start to pump erratically because it isn't getting the blood it needs. This can be life threatening. If the blood supply to the heart is cut off for more than a few minutes, the tissue can be permanently damaged.
  • Strokes and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs or "mini strokes") can result from blockages in the arteries that supply blood to the brain. They can also occur when a blood clot from elsewhere in the body -- like the heart -- moves through the bloodstream and lodges in an artery that feeds the brain. In a TIA, the blockage only lasts just a few minutes at most. In a stroke, the brain cells are starved of oxygen for a longer time. This can cause more permanent damage or death.
  • Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) occurs if the plaque, narrows or clot blocks the arteries that supply blood to the extremities, especially the legs. This causes painful cramping, especially after you've been walking or exercising.

Understand that arteriosclerosis and blood clots aren't the only causes of these conditions. For instance, about 17% of strokes are caused by ruptured instead of blocked arteries. Some heart attacks result from arterial spasms. But in most people who have had PAD, angina, stroke, or a heart attack, arteriosclerosis and blood clots are the underlying problem.

"You have to know that this is a systemic disease," says Ross. "It affects your whole body. While one plaque may have caused your heart attack or stroke, that isn't the only plaque you have." So besides treating the plaque that caused your immediate problem, you also have to focus on stopping any other plaques from getting worse.

Treatments for Cardiovascular Disease

The good news is that there are many ways to stop cardiovascular disease from worsening. In some cases, you may be able to reverse the damage.

"We really encourage people to see that there are lots of good options for treatment," says Ross. "The key is to choose the one that's best for the individual."

  • Procedures and Surgery. There are many approaches available. To open up an artery that has become clogged with plaque, your doctor might perform an angioplasty. This procedure guides a tiny balloon into the artery and inflates it to open up space at the site of the blockage. Afterward, your doctor might insert a stent -- a small, mesh cylinder -- into the artery to keep it open. In some cases, your doctor may also give a dose of a medicine directly into the artery to break up the blockage. More invasive procedures are sometimes necessary, like bypass surgery.
  • Medication. Depending on your case, you might need a number of medications.
    • Antiplatelet drugs (including aspirin) can help reduce clotting in the blood.
    • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs), and vasodilators relax your blood vessels. This makes it easier for your heart to pump blood and lowers your blood pressure.
    • Blood thinners also help prevent blood clotting.
    • Beta-blockers lower blood pressure and lower the heart rate.
    • Calcium channel blockers relax blood vessels and ease the workload on the heart.
    • Diuretics help lower your blood pressure by getting rid of excess sodium and water.
    • Statins and other medicines can help control your cholesterol levels.

But of course, medicine won't help if you don't remember to take it. So make sure your health care provider tells you exactly when and how to use your medicine. If you need reminders, leave notes around the house or use timers or alarms. Also, invest a few bucks in a plastic pillbox that has slots for each day of the week.

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