Ageing is an unavoidable process in our lives. As we grow old, the systems in our body undergo changes. Some health conditions start early and grow with age, but may stay undiagnosed for many years. Atherosclerosis, which is caused due to the damage to cardiovascular process, is one of them. In our ageing population, atherosclerosis is the common cause for heart attacks, strokes and peripheral vascular disease. We will discuss the symptoms, issues, diagnosis and prevention of this disease.
Old people tend to get sick often
What is atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis is the hardening and narrowing of the arteries due to plaque build up. Arteries are blood vessels carrying blood from the heart to the entire body. They are lined by a thin layer of cells called the endothelium. The endothelium keeps the inside of arteries toned and smooth, which is essential for proper blood supply.
When this endothelium is damaged, bad cholesterol (LDL) enters the wall of the artery. The white blood cells in the blood stream digest the LDL. The mixture of cells, cholesterol and other substances in blood accumulates and becomes plaque on the arterial wall. This plaque narrows and hardens the artery wall.
How does atherosclerosis affect the body?
- With age, the walls of the arteries thicken and the elasticity of the heart decreases. This increases the effort on the heart to pump blood to other body parts. In the elderly, the ensuing stiffening of the arteries affects the systolic and diastolic pressures, thereby increasing pulse pressure. This may cause cardiovascular diseases in the future.
- The increased load on the heart causes an increase in the mass of the heart. This phenomenon called as hypertrophy, is due to the formation of scar tissue in the heart muscle. This causes an impairment in the relaxation of the heartbeat.
- Additionally, the scarring may affect the sinus node and other organs regulating the heart and its vital functions, causing fatal disturbances in heart rate and rhythm.
- Also, in older people, atherosclerosis can cause formation of calcium crystals in the aortic valve. This is an extreme case of fibrosis and may affect the functioning of the valves severely. This scenario is commonly called as senile aortic stenosis.
Old people need to get their health checked regularly
What are the common causes and symptoms in the elderly?
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure and diabetes
- Abdominal obesity
- Excessive alcohol consumption,
- Stress and lack of a proper fitness regime.
- Shortness of breath
- Progressive fatigue
- Irregular heartbeats
- Pain or discomfort in the left chest
What are the diseases caused due to this condition?
- Coronary artery disease: Plaques in the heart’s arteries cause angina(chest pain on exertion). Sudden plaque rupture and clotting causes heart muscle to die. This is commonly called as a heart attack.
- Cerebrovascular disease: Plaques in the brain‘s arteries rupture and cause strokes with the potential for permanent brain damage.
- Peripheral artery disease: Plaques narrowing the arteries of the legs cause poor circulation. This results in pain on walking and poor wound healing. Severe cases may lead to amputations.
- Angiographyand stenting: Angiography is a technique where a thin tube is inserted into an artery in the leg or arm. Blockages are visible on a live X-ray screen. Techniques such as Angioplasty and stenting can often open up a blocked artery. Stenting reduces the symptoms but may not prevent future heart attacks.
- Bypass surgery:A healthy blood vessel often from the leg or chest is harvested and used to bypass a segment blocked by Atherosclerosis.
The above procedures are complicated and usually reserved for people with severe symptoms and limitations due to Atherosclerosis.
Healthy lifestyle has huge benefits
How to prevent it?
- Lifestyle changes:Maintain a healthy diet, exercise and avoid smoking. Blood pressure and diabetes should be in check. These changes lessen the incidence of a blockage and a heart attack.
- Medication: Taking drugs for high cholesterol and high blood pressurewill slow or perhaps even halt the progression of Atherosclerosis, lowering the risk of heart attacks and stroke.
Atherosclerosis is a common medical condition which is a consequence of ageing. Although ageing cannot be stopped, this condition can be prevented by opting for a healthy lifestyle. Regular exercise and proper diet are crucial factors which can make your life easier and enjoyable at old age.