Atherosclerosis Prevention & Risk Factors: What to Know

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
October 16, 2021
Heart valve

Chances are, your doctor is already screening you for atherosclerosis risk. They are probably keeping track of your cholesterol, blood pressure and your blood sugar levels. But even if these numbers are perfect, you may still have fatty deposits in your heart arteries, according to a new study. 

What is Atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is a primary cause of coronary artery disease, the condition involves a buildup of fatty deposits along the inner lining of an artery. Over time, the fatty deposits form a plaque that hardens and narrows the arteries. This impedes blood flow, depriving organs -- including the heart and brain -- of oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood, raising your possibility for a heart attack or stroke.

Different Risk Factors that Contribute to Damaged Arteries

High cholesterol, high blood pressure and high blood sugar levels raise your risk for atherosclerosis. This is why your primary care physician screens for them. Here’s how these risk factors damage your arteries.

High Cholesterol and Atherosclerosis

When cholesterol is too high, it can accumulate along the interior of arterial walls, eventually escalating to atherosclerosis.  

High Blood Pressure and Atherosclerosis

High blood pressure injuries arteries by causing them to swell and stretch, eventually causing them to stiffen and tear. Damaged arteries are more vulnerable to bad cholesterol (LDL) and white blood cells entering the arterial lining, buildup, form plaque and an eventual occlusion.

Type 2 Diabetes and Atherosclerosis

Type 2 diabetes can affect cholesterol levels and raises the chances of developing atherosclerosis. Many people with type 2 diabetes have elevated triglycerides, decreased good cholesterol (HDL) and increased bad cholesterol (LDL), even if their blood sugar is well controlled. And high cholesterol levels lead to atherosclerosis. Moreover, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Rochester found that people with diabetes often have slower blood flow, allowing more time for cholesterol to deposit along arterial walls.

Hearth Health Screenings: Normal Readings Might Be Misleading

Even if you have normal readings on these screenings, you still may have fatty deposits in your heart arteries, according to a study published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation. This recent study found 40 percent of middle-aged Swedish adults ages 50 to 64 with no known heart disease have fatty deposits in cardiac arteries.

Swedish researchers recruited and analyzed results for 25,182 random participants between the ages of 50 and 64 who didn’t have coronary artery disease and had high-quality results for coronary computed tomography angiography (CCTA) and coronary artery calcification (CAC) tests available. Results showed this age group has a high probability for silent coronary atherosclerosis and stenosis.

“Atherosclerosis is largely preventable. Yes, genes play a role – sometimes even a major role,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. “However, living a heart-healthy lifestyle can significantly contribute to preventing and controlling the condition.”

5 Tips for Preventing Atherosclerosis

Here are five basic tips that can help you prevent or control atherosclerosis, according to the Mayo Clinic.

  1. Quit Smoking – Smoking damages arteries. If you’re a smoker, talk to your doctor about quitting. They can prescribe a nicotine replacement therapy and refer you to a cessation program.
  2. Exercise Regularly – Exercising helps lower blood pressure, reduce blood sugar, control stress and improve cholesterol. The general recommendation is 30 minutes most days of the week. Before beginning an exercise program, make sure you get clearance from your doctor.
  3. Manage Weight – Losing just some of your extra weight can help lower blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. Work with your doctor to help you lose weight safely.
  4. Eat Heart-Healthy Diet – Adding lean protein and plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains into your diet while eliminating refined sugar, refined grains and sodium can help you lose weight, lower blood pressure, control cholesterol and manage diabetes. Before changing your diet, talk to your diet. Your doctor may refer you to a dietician.
  5. Control Stress – Finding ways to lower stress such as exercise, a hobby, meditation or deep breathing can help control blood pressure, cholesterol and may even help you lose some weight. 

“Of course, the best way to help prevent and control atherosclerosis is by working with your primary care doctor. They can help you stay on top of screenings, guide your lifestyle behaviors and refer you to specialists,” says Kaminetsky.

Don’t have a physician? Consider working with MDVIP.

MDVIP-affiliated physicians have the time and resources to help you focus on heart health. Find a physician near you and begin your partnership in health » 

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About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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