Can Atherosclerosis Be Reversed?
Atherosclerosis is the technical term for the partial occlusion or blockage of arteries around the body. This occurs because serum (blood) cholesterol, very different from the cholesterol we eat in foods, in the circulatory system begins to stick to the walls of the arteries. As these sticky plaques build up, they reduce blood flow. Some early signs include fatigue due to the reduced oxygen flow to cells downstream and high blood pressure. Patients eventually develop chest pain, known as angina. However, some may experience a heart attack – when the heart no longer receives sufficient oxygen flow to function – without any significant precursors.
Atherosclerosis builds over time. You can think of it as nozzles on a showerhead. As hard water passes through the nozzles, calcium deposits build up, eventually needing removal for the showerhead to function correctly. However, we don’t yet have an elegant solution to removing plaque in the arteries entirely, so atherosclerosis cannot be reversed naturally. However, we do have several options for patients that are suffering from atherosclerosis:
- The front line of defense is known as balloon angioplasty with stenting. In this procedure, we thread a spaghetti-like catheter up to the occluded area of the artery. A tiny balloon is deployed from the tip of the catheter, and the pressure from the inflating balloon pushes these plaques up against the sides of the artery walls. This compression allows significantly more blood flow to pass through. We often place a stent or tubular metal lattice in the treatment area to reduce the likelihood of occlusion in the same area in the future. These stents can be medicated to minimize long-term risk further.
- For hardened plaque, we can employ a procedure known as atherectomy. This procedure uses a device with a drill-like tip to cut through hardened plaque and can be effective in certain patients.
- For those with occlusion that cannot be treated with either of these options, a CABG, commonly known as a bypass, will be required. This is where the blocked area of the artery is bypassed using donor blood vessel tissue from another part of the body.
Most importantly, as with many chronic diseases, catching atherosclerosis early offers the best opportunity for effective treatment. It is, therefore, essential to speak to your primary care physician and cardiologist about a proper screening program and stick to it. If you have increased risk factors for cardiovascular diseases, like smoking, family history, and excess weight, you may need more regular checkups or may have to start at an earlier age. Under the care of a knowledgeable and experienced cardiologist, we can often treat heart disease at its earliest presentation and keep you healthier for longer, avoiding many of the worst consequences of metabolic and cardiovascular disease.
While atherosclerosis cannot be reversed naturally, this does not mean patients should become complacent with their lifestyle, including maintaining proper diet and exercise habits. By losing weight, if necessary, and improving their diet, patients can reduce pressure on the heart and consequently lower the risk of a future heart attack or congestive heart failure. A diet low in saturated fats and added sugars is one of the best ways to achieve this. Patients can speak to their cardiologist about the best exercise programs based on their circumstances and cardiovascular status. As a general rule of thumb, combining moderate cardiovascular activity and strength training several times a week is ideal.
We encourage you to contact us for more information and to schedule your appointment with one of our cardiologists.