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Atherosclerosis: Prevention Through the Ages

No matter your age, try these steps to prevent hardening of the arteries.
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WebMD Feature

Atherosclerosis starts early and progresses throughout life. You can't see or feel it, but in most of us the process is already under way.

The plaques of atherosclerosis can grow to become blood vessel blockages. If a plaque ruptures, the sudden blood clot causes a heart attack or stroke.

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Atherosclerosis is common, unpredictable, and potentially deadly. Is there any good news? Because atherosclerosis takes decades to progress, the process can be slowed down at any point, reducing the risk.

Regardless of your age, there are specific steps you can take to slow down atherosclerosis. Take a moment to consider what changes you can make today, to protect your arteries later.

Preventing Atherosclerosis: In Your 20s and 30s

Almost no one develops complications from atherosclerosis at this age. Still, studies show the process has begun by our 20s or even younger. In these studies, risk factors mattered: young people with obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or who smoked had more-advanced early atherosclerosis.

The American Heart Association recommends seeing your doctor beginning at age 20 to routinely assess your risk for heart disease.

Instead of treating atherosclerosis, the key here is developing good habits that will last a lifetime. Don't force it; instead, try to imagine how better habits might fit into your life.

Exercise: Make it a hobby to find some physical activity you enjoy. The idea of sticking to a boring, unpleasant exercise schedule for the next 40 years would send anyone to the couch. Experiment with different activities until you find something you like. If you get sick of that, try something else.

Diet: Eating five servings of fruits and vegetables daily is effective at preventing heart disease. Make it a habit to try something different in the produce aisle each time you hit the supermarket.

Preventing Atherosclerosis: In Your 40s and 50s

The rate of developing atherosclerosis accelerates in middle age, and so should your approach to reducing the risk.

Risk factors (high blood pressure or cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and smoking) become extremely important through these years. Everyone should see a doctor sometime soon after turning 40. He or she can assess your risk factors and provide a treatment plan.

Exercise: If you've been sedentary most of your life, you don't need to run marathons to get a benefit. Any activity is better than none.

  • Start slow and work up to 30 minutes of walking daily.
  • Take the stairs. Walk up one flight, or down two.
  • At the grocery store, park the car at the far end of the lot and walk.
  • Take an extra lap around the mall before heading home.

Diet: Ask each member of your family to choose a favorite (or least-hated) vegetable. Rotate through everyone's favorite at dinnertime. Toss in a salad, and you're well on your way to reducing your atherosclerosis risk.

Cut back on the red meat, as well. Keep meat portions small (the size of a deck of cards). Lean, skinless poultry is a great choice.

Don't use the excuse, "at my age, changing my lifestyle won't make any difference." In fact, adopting a healthy lifestyle in middle age reduces the risk of death from atherosclerosis by two-thirds

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