We hate to break it to you, but your arteries began to harden as early as your teens – especially if you eat a typical Western diet. Better known as hardening of the arteries, atherosclerosis is often considered an “old age” disease. Well, here’s why it’s better to pay attention to it sooner rather than later.
Sohail Khan, M.D. from the Heart Center at St. Mark's Hospital explains that arteries narrow and harden with time, especially when we don’t take steps to prevent that from happening. “When people are not careful with their diet and exercise as well as controlling cholesterol and hypertension,” he said, “they may progress more quickly to hardened arteries and blockages than others."
The good news is that many of the risk factors for atherosclerosis are preventable and even reversible. The bad news is that the first symptom is often a heart attack or stroke. And by then, it’s a little late for prevention methods. But you know what they say about better late than never!
"Atherosclerosis affects every blood vessel in your body. When that hardening happens in the artery going to your brain, you’re at risk for a stroke. When it occurs in the artery going into your heart, you’re likely headed for a heart attack. When the artery going into your legs is involved, leg pain, leg wounds, and even amputations may be in your future," he said.
Here are 4 reasons your arteries are hardening and steps you can take to prevent or reverse the process.
Diet is one of the main contributing factors to hardened arteries, and one of the best ways to manage your health. Focus on eating foods that are high in antioxidants and low in cholesterol and saturated fats. Look for heart-healthy options that promote good circulation, digestion and energy.
A poor diet that is high in saturated fats can cause high cholesterol that leads to plaque buildup in your arteries. By keeping your cholesterol down and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, your arteries will stay clearer and flexible.
Diabetes can significantly affect your arteries health. Both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are marked by an excess of blood sugar (glucose). When there is too much in the bloodstream, sugar can damage artery walls and reduce healthy blood flow, leading to hardened arteries and possibly ruptures and blockages. Diabetes can also lead to greater inflammation throughout the body, putting increased pressure on the blood vessels and increasing your risk for atherosclerosis.
If you have diabetes, it's important to manage your blood sugar levels carefully and maintain a healthy diet and exercise program that promotes circulation. Talk with your doctor about diet and treatment options that will work best for you to prevent or reduce atherosclerosis.
Focusing on healthy habits like a good diet and exercise are an important part of overall well-being and can significantly reduce the effects of hardening arteries. However, bad habits like smoking (or even inhaling secondhand smoke) damage blood vessels, lower good cholesterol, and increase blood pressure — all of which contribute to atherosclerosis.
If you're looking for ways to dramatically improve your heart health, quitting smoking and starting a regular exercise routine will make a huge difference.
Obesity is another risk factor that can greatly affect good artery health. It promotes plaque formation by contributing to other risk factors like high cholesterol and diabetes. Studies have linked obesity to chronic inflammation, which can exacerbate atherosclerosis by putting added pressure on the blood vessels. Obesity and associated inflammation "may make any blockages worse and lead to ruptures, which can cause heart attack and stroke."
To combat this effect, Khan recommends losing extra weight and eating a diet rich in antioxidants, such as fruit and vegetables. He said a Mediterranean diet, "will not only slow down the atherosclerosis process, but it will also decrease the systemic inflammation in the body."
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a silver bullet when it comes to improving your artery health. Given that many factors can cause atherosclerosis, Khan emphasizes the need for a holistic, systemic approach to treatment.
Although you can't stop the wheel of time from turning, you can make choices that will help slow the progression and severity of hardened arteries throughout your lifetime. That's why it's important to recognize what factors contribute to this type of heart disease and take action to prevent it.
Atherosclerosis is a progressive condition, so the sooner you take measures to manage your risk factors, the better off you'll be in the long run. The best advice is to start investing in your health early. If you’re concerned about hardening of the arteries or have a family history of this disease, take the first step toward better heart health by talking to your doctor. If you need help finding one, click here.