Once upon a time, it was called “hardening of the arteries”—an old-fashioned term that described an all-too-common process in which the large blood vessels called arteries that carry blood from the heart to the rest of the body become less flexible as people age.
These days, it would technically be called arteriosclerosis—a broad medical term that refers to abnormal thickening and stiffening of the arterial walls. There can be many contributors to this condition, including the buildup of calcium inside arteries—and chronic high blood pressure.
But the most common cause of arteriosclerosis is atherosclerosis. That happens when the cause of that arterial stiffness is inflammation that causes cholesterol to form plaques on the inside of arterial walls, which in turn makes the arteries stiff. That process narrows the artery and restricts the flow of blood. Although atherosclerosis is just one type of arteriosclerosis, these days the two terms tend to be used interchangeably.
So forget “hardening of the arteries.” Use “arteriosclerosis” only if you want to impress your neighbors at the next garden party with your superior medical knowledge. But do spend a moment to learn more about atherosclerosis. It’s the condition that you’re most likely to have—by far. It can affect your heart, brain and kidneys, the circulation to your legs and arms—and, especially if you’re a man, your sex life. Here’s how atherosclerosis affects…
When the arteries that feed your heart (your coronary arteries) are narrowed and stiff, blood doesn’t get through them well. That can lead to angina (chest pain) or, if an artery becomes completely blocked, a heart attack. And over a long period, that reduced blood flow can lead to heart failure.
Atherosclerosis can cause carotid artery disease in which the arteries that bring blood to your brain are narrowed. That can lead to transient ischemic attacks (TIAs)—aka, mini-strokes. If an artery in the brain is completely blocked, you have a stroke. Atherosclerosis of brain arteries also can cause vascular dementia.
The arteries that feed your kidneys can be narrowed by atherosclerosis, a condition called renal artery stenosis. When this happens, you develop high blood pressure that is very hard to control and can lead to kidney failure.
If you have atherosclerosis that narrows the arteries of your legs, you may develop peripheral artery disease (PAD). The poor blood flow to your legs causes painful leg cramps when you exercise or even when you just walk. Because the circulation to your feet is impaired, you may develop hard-to-heal foot sores.
YOUR SEX LIFE
Atherosclerosis narrows all the arteries in the body, including, for a man, the tiny ones inside the penis. That’s why erectile dysfunction is often an early warning sign of heart health problems—and the same lifestyle changes that benefit the heart can also improve a man’s sexual performance.
One really big risk factor for atherosclerosis is just getting older. Most people over the age of 50 show at least some signs. You can’t do anything about aging, but you can change some of the other risk factors…
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Being overweight
- Diabetes that’s not well-controlled
- Lack of exercise
Lifestyle changes can do a lot to help prevent and slow atherosclerosis. Medications that help control high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and/or blood clotting may also be necessary. When atherosclerosis blocks arteries leading to the heart, kidneys or legs, they can be opened up with angioplasty (inserting a catheter into the blocked area) and placing a stent (a tiny tube) in the artery to prop it open. Heart surgery can be used to bypass arteries clogged by atherosclerosis. In some cases, clogged carotid arteries can be opened and cleaned out by a procedure called carotid endarterectomy.
Bottom line: Keeping your arteries healthy and flexible—that is, preventing or slowing atherosclerosis—is key to minimizing a broad range of diseases. One place to start on the road to prevention—cardiologist Dr. Joel K. Kahn’s seven-step heart-healthy regimen.