In our younger years, we may feel invincible — eating what we want, staying out all night and enjoying every moment life has to offer. As we age, we start noticing the side effects of a once-carefree lifestyle — an ache here, a few pounds there. But what about the toll on our bodies that we can’t always see or feel?
Take for instance plaque buildup in our arteries, also known as atherosclerosis. The accumulation of these fatty substances can be due to certain lifestyle habits, genetics and other factors. Over time, plaque buildup can reduce oxygen and blood flow to organs, and increase your risk for serious vascular conditions.
So are there ways to reclaim hardened arteries from years of buildup, and restore their elastic, open pathways?
First, let’s understand how plaque forms. It begins when cholesterol and other substances stick to artery walls. In response, white blood cells try to trap cholesterol, which causes it to morph into foamy, fatty cells. This triggers muscle cells to form a fibrous “cap” over these diseased portions of the artery, creating plaque. Plaques can rupture and cause changes in blood flow or obstruction of the blood vessels, which can lead to heart attacks or strokes.
There are different approaches to removing or reducing plaque buildup.
“One way to address years of plaque buildup is with healthy lifestyle modifications, such as smoking cessation, exercise and a heart-healthy balanced diet,” says Dr. Patrick Cook, a vascular surgeon affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “Medicines, such as statins, are also beneficial as they decrease cholesterol production, and may be prescribed to reduce atherosclerosis and reduce inflammation in the blood vessels.”
Doctors use different types of procedures to keep plaque under control. For example, surgeons can insert balloons and stents — a short narrow metal or plastic tube — into narrowed blood vessels to increase blood flow and stabilize plaques so that they do not break open. There is also bypass surgery, in which a surgeon uses a vein or prosthetic tube to go around the diseased artery segment, and connect it to good arteries above and below the blockage.
A healthy lifestyle
Aside from medical and surgical interventions, what else can you do to get rid of plaque?
“There is limited evidence that eating a certain type of food, herb or other folk remedies will reduce or make the plaque that already exists in your arteries disappear. However, practicing a healthy lifestyle can keep additional plaque from forming,” says Dr. Cook.
Here are some healthy lifestyle tips to reduce the risk of atherosclerosis:
Do not smoke
Smoking can damage blood vessels, increasing one’s risk of atherosclerosis.
Incorporate daily physical activity in your life. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise weekly, or a combination of both. Examples of moderate exercise are brisk walking or gardening. Vigorous exercise includes aerobics, hiking uphill, running and other activities that increase your breathing and heart rate.
Eat a healthy diet
Follow a heart-healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts. Keep meat, dairy, sugar, refined grains, salt and saturated fats to a minimum, as these have been known to damage blood vessel cells over time.
There are different types of heart-healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in olive oil, fruits, vegetables, nuts and fish, and low in red or processed meats and dairy. Some studies also point to the cardiovascular benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle. According to some researchers, plant-based diets may reduce the risk of atherosclerosis by increasing certain components in the body, such as antioxidants, which protect blood vessels.
For the news media: To talk with Dr. Cook about heart health for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.