What Is Hardening of the Arteries?

A diagram of the human head and neck, including the arteries in red.
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  • Written By: Steve R.
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 08 July 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
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    Conjecture Corporation
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Hardening of the arteries, also known as atherosclerosis, is a condition that develops when fat and other matter called plaque develops along the walls of the arteries. As more plaque builds up and hardens in the arteries, the heart has to work much harder to deliver blood throughout the body. Eventually, hardening of the arteries may lead to coronary diseases including strokes, heart attacks, and irregular cardiac rhythms.

An individual's arteries become hardened gradually. As more plaque develops over time, a person will develop symptoms. Symptoms may differ, depending in which artery becomes afflicted with plaque buildup.

If hardening of the arteries develops in the arteries of the heart, a person may experience symptoms comparable to a heart attack, including chest pain and shortness of breath. Symptoms of atherosclerosis in the arteries to the brain often include lack of feeling in the arms and legs, trouble talking, and sagging facial muscles. A person who develops plaque buildup in the arteries of the limbs will often experience difficulty walking. If the plaque buildup becomes severe in the limbs, amputation may be necessary. When atherosclerosis arises in the arteries leading to the kidney, a person may develop hypertension or kidney failure.

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Certain factors may expedite or lead to hardening of the arteries. Risk factors may include hypertension and high levels of bad cholesterol. Nicotine, obesity, and/or lack of physical activity may also increase the chances for atherosclerosis. A person whose diet includes an excess of fat and lack of fruits and vegetables puts himself at risk for atherosclerosis.

A person's traits also play a role in developing atherosclerosis. As a person increases in age, he is more inclined to develop hardened arteries. Males and people of African descent are also more susceptible to the condition. A person's genes also are a risk factor. If a person has a parent or close relative with the disease, he is at risk for atherosclerosis.

Treatment for atherosclerosis aims to increase blood flow to affected arteries. Changing one's lifestyle can make a big difference. Progression of plaque can be curbed through engaging in exercise, eating a healthy diet, and losing weight. Stopping smoking can decrease the levels of bad cholesterol and enhance the levels for good cholesterol.

Certain medications can help reduce or reverse the effects of hardened arteries. Aspirin is commonly used to curb atherosclerosis as the anti-platelet medicine aids in preventing blood clots. Medications such as fibrates and statins can also be prescribed by a physician. Fibrates and statins increase good cholesterol levels and lessen bad cholesterol levels.

When hardening of the arteries is severe, other treatment may be necessary. Angioplasty includes the placement of a thin balloon in the artery. When the balloon is blown up in the body, it increases the size of the artery, allowing for better blood flow. Blood flow may also be improved with bypass surgery. Bypass surgery enhances circulation by using arteries or veins from another body part or synthetic fabric to treat the blocked artery.

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