Atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries

Arteriosclerosis, also known as atherosclerosis, causes no symptoms for many years. Over time, however, the risk of dangerous cardiovascular diseases increases - incidentally, they are one of the most common causes of death in Switzerland.

In the early stages, arteriosclerosis can still be easily influenced: a healthy lifestyle in combination with certain medications is already sufficient to counteract the progression of atherosclerosis or arteriosclerosis.

Overview: What is arteriosclerosis?

Arteriosclerosis is often referred to as “hardening of the arteries”. The term already suggests what the problem is: blood fats, inflammatory cells and in some cases blood clots are deposited on the walls of the arteries and lead to a thickening and hardening of the vessel walls, which ultimately narrows the vascular cavity. This leads to a reduced blood supply to the adjacent tissue areas, so that certain areas of the body can no longer be adequately supplied with blood.

Even young people can develop arteriosclerosis. In them, it is mainly fat that is deposited in the arteries. Platelets and blood components are added later. This process develops very slowly, so that symptoms only appear at a later stage. The typical signs of arteriosclerosis depend on which vessels are affected. In advanced stages, vasoconstriction can lead to strokes or heart attacks. Early diagnosis is therefore important. So take the opportunity to have a regular check-up so that symptoms that indicate atherosclerosis can be recognized and clarified.

Atherosclerosis: causes and risk factors

Arteries are responsible for transporting blood away from the heart. They are found throughout the body. Different areas can therefore be affected by arteriosclerosis, for example the neck or the legs.

The exact causes of arteriosclerosis have not yet been conclusively researched, but scientists are convinced that LDL cholesterol plays an important role. Cholesterol is a fat-like substance (lipid) that is largely produced by the body itself, but is also partly absorbed through the diet. There is LDL cholesterol, which transports fats from the liver to the organs, and HDL cholesterol, which disposes of excess LDL cholesterol. If there are high levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood, it is deposited in the blood vessel walls. This is why LDL cholesterol is also commonly referred to as “bad cholesterol”. A high LDL value can therefore increase the risk of arteriosclerosis. A blood test will tell you how high your value is.

Hypercholesterolemia as a risk factor

Hypercholesterolemia is a typical risk factor for arteriosclerosis. Anyone who suffers from this has high cholesterol levels. In western industrialized nations, more than every second person over the age of 40 is affected. A common cause is a diet high in cholesterol and animal fats. In a small proportion of the population, hypercholesterolemia is genetic (so-called familial hypercholesterolemia).

Risk factors for arteriosclerosis: smoking, obesity, lack of exercise

An increased risk of arteriosclerosis can lead to changes in the blood vessels as early as adolescence. The probability increases the more risk factors come together. Other typical risk factors for arteriosclerosis are tobacco consumption, obesity and lack of exercise. Lifestyle therefore plays an important role. However, underlying diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes mellitus also increase the likelihood of developing arteriosclerosis. It is therefore important to have such underlying diseases treated as early as possible.

Older people have a higher risk of arteriosclerosis. Women over 70 and men over 60 suffer from it more frequently than younger people. Many people take too little exercise, eat an unhealthy diet or already suffer from pre-existing conditions.

Symptoms: Arteriosclerosis

It can take years or decades before arteriosclerosis causes symptoms. It takes a while for the deposits in the blood vessels to build up to such an extent that the impaired blood flow becomes noticeable. This is why most of those affected only notice that they have a problem with their blood vessels when they are older.

The symptoms are very varied and depend on which arteries are narrowed: If the vessels in the heart are affected, this leads to an undersupply of blood to the heart muscle. Patients then develop a form of chest pain called angina pectoris. Vascular constrictions in the heart also increase the risk of a heart attack. However, deposits can also form in the cerebral arteries, which can lead to a stroke, in leg arteries and in kidney arteries, which increase the risk of impaired function of these organs.

Symptoms of arteriosclerosis in the area of the heart

If the arteries for the heart – the so-called coronaries – are narrowed, coronary heart disease (CHD) develops. The heart muscle is less well supplied with blood, which in many cases leads to left-sided chest pain radiating to the arms, neck or abdomen. A feeling of tightness in the chest, known as “angina pectoris”, is also typical. Arteriosclerosis becomes particularly dangerous when a blood clot forms and closes a coronary artery. In this case, the affected person suffers a heart attack and must be hospitalized immediately. The earlier treatment begins, the higher the chances of survival.

Symptoms of arteriosclerosis in the legs and pelvis

If the arteries in the pelvis and legs are narrowed, peripheral arterial occlusive disease can develop. Those affected are significantly restricted in their everyday life: If they only walk a few meters, they have such severe pain in their legs that they have to stop. To hide their discomfort, many stop in front of a shop window. They pretend to be interested in the displays. This is why people also speak of “intermittent claudication”. After a few minutes, the discomfort subsides and the affected person can continue walking.

In peripheral arterial occlusive disease, the circulation in the legs is severely impaired. If the disease progresses unchecked, health continues to deteriorate. In the later stages, the pain also occurs during periods of rest. In some cases, the toes even die off. If more and more arteries in the legs or pelvis become constricted, a chronic arterial circulatory disorder often develops. This can lead to a leg amputation.

Arteriosclerosis in the head and brain

However, arteriosclerosis can also trigger completely different symptoms. If the carotid artery or its branches are severely narrowed, this can lead to a stroke. Those affected suddenly have severe headaches, are confused and have problems expressing themselves verbally. Some are dazed, others unconscious. Visual disturbances and dizziness are other typical symptoms of a stroke. In addition, one side of the face or body may be severely restricted in terms of motor function, and may even be paralyzed. The consequences of a stroke depend on the area of the brain affected. In some cases there is a complete recovery, in other cases permanent paralysis is to be expected. Early treatment in a stroke center and specialized rehabilitation can often prevent such serious consequences. If you suspect a stroke, you should call the emergency services (144) immediately and go to hospital.

Arteriosclerosis: Diagnosis with us

If you visit us with suspected arteriosclerosis, we will first ask you about your medical history (anamnesis). We not only want to find out about your current symptoms, but also inquire about any underlying illnesses or previous hospital visits. We receive indications of possible symptomatic arteriosclerosis, for example, if you have angina pectoris or can only walk short distances, or if you suffer from diabetes or a lipometabolic disorder.

This is followed by a physical examination and a blood test to determine cholesterol and blood sugar. Depending on the symptoms you describe, we will arrange for further examinations:

Arteriosclerosis: prevention, early detection, prognosis

You can do a lot to prevent arteriosclerosis. A healthy diet is just as important as sufficient exercise and avoiding habits that damage the blood vessels:

  • Make sure your diet is low in cholesterol and reduce your excess weight if necessary. Eat very little meat, sausage, fast food or ready meals – these hide unhealthy fats and other additives that put a strain on your metabolism. Instead, opt for wholegrain products, pulses, fish, plenty of vegetables and fruit.
  • Endurance sport – three to five times a week for 30 minutes – has been proven to reduce the risk of arteriosclerosis. Healthy are: Cycling, jogging, walking, cross-country skiing or swimming. These sports also help you to shed excess pounds and maintain a normal weight.
  • If you are a smoker or a smoker, try to stop. There are many ways to stop smoking. If you are unable to do this on your own, seek professional support. Smoking is one of the biggest risk factors for arteriosclerosis and many other diseases.

As the symptoms only appear at an advanced stage, you should have an arteriosclerosis check regularly. Especially if you already belong to a risk group. The earlier the disease is detected, the easier it is to treat.

Progression and prognosis of arteriosclerosis

If arteriosclerosis progresses untreated, complications can occur over time. If the deposits or vascular plaques and vascular calcifications are unstable, they can break open and cause a blood clot. The so-called thrombus is the most common cause of acute arterial occlusion. It is particularly dangerous in the region of the heart, as it leads to a heart attack, which should be treated as quickly as possible.

Treatment of arteriosclerosis

It is often enough to live healthier and take medication to treat arteriosclerosis. We will recommend exercise, a healthy diet and quitting smoking to protect your blood vessels. It is also important to reduce excess weight.

We will discuss with you which therapy is most suitable for you.