Atherosclerosis refers to accumulation of a thick sludge in patches that merge to form large plaques, called atheromas, in artery walls. The plaque is made up of cholesterol and other fats, macrophages, cell "junk", calcium, and tissues.
LDL cholesterol is associated with atherogenesis because as it becomes oxidized it can induce endothelial cells to attract blood-borne monycytes, transforming them into macrophages and trapping them in endothelial spaces (1).
The macrophages then engorge themselves with cholesterol and fat creating "foam cells. Then, once engorged, they release inflammatory cytokines that only lead to even more macrophages creating more foam cells (1).
Along with damaged smooth muscle cells, the foam cells then form the sludge plaque, or fatty streak, that narrows lumen as it grows larger causing blood flow to to become restricted (1).
There are various drugs that can help to slow or reverse atherosclerosis, which include cholesterol-lowering drugs such as statins, anti-coagulants such as warfarin to inhibit clotting, antiplatelets like aspirin to keep platelets from forming clots, and medications such as ACE inhibitors or calcium channel blockers to lower blood pressure (2).
If atherosclerosis becomes severe, surgery may be needed. A procedure called an angioplasty can be performed by inserting a catheter with a deflated balloon into an affected artery, then inflated to open the artery. Sometimes a stent, or mesh tube, is left to keep it open.
Other surgeries involve endarterectomy, where fatty deposits are surgically removed from walls, or thrombolytic therapy in which drugs are inserted into arteries to dissolve clots (2).
A bypass surgery (such as a CABG, coronary artery bypass surgery) involves using another part of the body or a tube to allow blood to flow around an affected artery (2).
It is possible to change the course of atherosclerosis -- even possibly reverse it -- by adopting a few lifestyle changes. These include stopping smoking, exercising regularly, eating right and lowering stress.
- Smoking in itself oxidizes LDL cholesterol and hastens the damage of arteries.
- Exercise improves blood flow and can induce the development of new blood vessels to lower the pressure on affected arteries.
- Eating right should include adopting strategies such as managing portions for weight management, a DASH-style diet for lowering blood pressure, limiting saturated and trans fatty acids and adopting polyunsaturated fats to lower triglycerides, and eating a high-fiber diet to lower cholesterol levels (1).
- Limiting stress in life through relaxation and sleeping well helps to avoid rises in blood pressure.
Overall, it's very likely that almost half of us will die from atherosclerosis or complications relating to it. Almost all of us have fatty streaks and plaques already developing. These are disheartening figures for those of us who wish to do all we can to fight back.
Luckily, our nutrition and medical knowledge continues to improve and new technologies are also forming.
One program of interest is the one promoted by cardiologist Dr. William Davis in his book Track Your Plaque, who promotes actively "tracking" the progression of plaque development (3).
In addition, Dr. Davis and fellow scientists have studied the effects of combined therapies involving niacin or statins, fish oil, vitamin D and other means to slow or reverse "hardening of the arteries" (4).
1. Gropper SS, Smith JL, Groff JL. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2009.
4. Davis W, Rockway S, Kwasny M. Effect of a combined therapeutic approach of intensive lipid management, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation, and increased serum 25 (OH) vitamin D on coronary calcium scores in asymptomatic adults. Am J Ther. 2009 Jul-Aug;16(4):326-32. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19092644