All about atherosclerosis

Posted on 9 November 2012

Dr Philip Mills is a cardiologist at Constantiaberg Mediclinic. He is a non-interventional and preventative cardiologist with a special interest in modifying the development and progression of vascular disease. He uses a holistic philosophy of aggressive lifestyle intervention, including exercise, diet and modern pharmacology.

I have been told I have atherosclerosis. What is that and what does it mean?
It’s a bit of a tongue twister, but atherosclerosis (which is pronounced ath-er-o-skleh-ro-sis) comes from the Greek words athero, meaning gruel or paste, and sclerosis, meaning hardness. It essentially describes the build-up of fatty substances, cholesterol, cellular waste products, calcium and other substances on the wall and inner lining of what are usually your large or medium-sized arteries.

Known as plaque, this build up can grow large enough to create a blockage and significantly reduce the blood’s flow through an artery. But most damage occurs when these plaques rupture, causing blood clots that can suddenly block your blood flow or break off and travel to vital organs.

Why is atherosclerosis potentially dangerous?
When atherosclerosis occurs in the arteries that supply blood to our hearts, it can lead to a heart attack, angina, arrhythmia, heart failure or even sudden death. Atherosclerosis of the head and neck vessels may lead to stroke, dementia or other brain dysfunction. Disease in your peripheral arteries can cause poor circulation to the legs, kidneys or bowel and even lead to aneurysms.

I’m a woman. Surely women are less at risk than men?
There is a misperception that women are less at risk than men. And while it’s true that women tend to be protected from cardiovascular disease throughout their childbearing years, this protection falls away rapidly after the menopause. It is therefore very important that women too, take care of their hearts.

In fact, the World Health Organization has identifed cardiovascular disease as the most common cause of death worldwide currently. Not only that, but cardiovascular disease disables many more people than it kills. And consider this: it is usually the most productive and active sector of the population that becomes affected by vascular disease.

My doctor says it’s lucky we caught it early. Why is that?
Normally patients see a doctor only once they are aware of symptoms and the disease is already advanced. But it’s like anything else; discovering cardiovascular disease early greatly improves your chances of doing something about it. So you are lucky to have caught it early. This will greatly improve your quality of life, reduce your future healthcare costs and help you live longer and more productively.

The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.

Published in Cardiology

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