An unpronounceable disease, atherosclerosis is the number-one killer in the United States; it’s responsible for more than a quarter of our deaths each year. Who knew? (Cancer is number two on the list.)
Atherosclerosis is a disease of the arteries, the blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients to our organs and tissues (including heart muscle tissue). It is a type of arteriosclerosis, the term for any stiffening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis is especially dangerous because it is hidden deep in the body and not easily detectable. It is a slow, progressive disease.
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The hidden disease
1. A normal artery is like a new rubber band: flexible, strong, and elastic.
2. Although the exact trigger of atherosclerosis is unknown, researchers suspect that the process begins with damage to the inner wall of the artery (which can be caused by high cholesterol, hypertension, or cigarette smoking, among others).
3. Over time, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances accumulate in the wall of the artery and form fatty deposits called plaques. The narrower artery opening limits blood flow.
4. These plaques can burst, causing a blood clot to form.
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Result No. 1: Heart attack
"My Chest Hurts"
If atherosclerosis narrows the arteries surrounding your heart, or if a clot forms and prevents blood from traveling to your heart muscle, it can cause chest pain (angina) or a heart attack. This is known as coronary artery disease.
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Result No. 2: Stroke
"I'm So Dizzy"
If atherosclerosis narrows the arteries in your neck, or if a blood clot deprives your brain of blood and oxygen, you can experience a stroke or a transient ischemic attack (also known as a mini-stroke). Both are accompanied by slurred speech, dizziness, and a loss of control of facial muscles.
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Result No. 3: Severe leg pain
"I Can't Walk and Need to Sit"
When atherosclerosis narrows arteries in your arms or legs, you can develop the circulation problems known as peripheral arterial disease. The pain is heightened from walking and relieved by rest. In severe cases, peripheral arterial disease can even cause tissues in the legs or feet to die, which may require amputation.
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The usual suspects
Many factors can contribute to atherosclerosis: high cholesterol, a poor diet, obesity, smoking, too much alcohol, a sedentary lifestyle.
Prevention is key. You should lose weight if you're overweight, quit smoking, exercise, and eat healthier.
Avoid overindulging on ice cream, whole milk, butter, sour cream, cream cheese, egg yolks, fatty meats, fast food, fried chicken, breaded chicken or fish, pastries, and chips. These foods tend to contain saturated fat and trans fats.
Cut back on drinking, too. Too much alcohol is bad, but low intakeno more than one drink a day for women and two a day for menis linked to a lower risk of stroke or heart attack.
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About the Artist
Vicki Behm, 58, is a New York City artist. Her paintings and prints involve geometric designs influenced by her mother's quilts, which were made in St. Louis. Behm has filled nearly 200 sketchbooks with drawings and has spent seven summers in Mexico making art. She teaches part-time for Studio in a School and at Brooklyn Friends School. Her husband, Glenn Coleman, is editor of Financial Week.