Atherosclerosis, also known as “hardening of the arteries”, is a disease in which fat, cholesterol and calcium (plaque) build up inside the vessels that carry blood around the body (arteries). Over time plaque hardens causing narrowing of the vessels and limits the flow of blood. When it affects the arteries that carry blood to the heart, it can cause a heart attack. When it affects the carotid arteries in the neck that carry blood to the brain, it can cause stroke. When it affects the peripheral arteries in the legs it can cause problems walking, pain in the legs and feet, ulcers and in advanced cases gangrene.
Modifiable risk factors associated with atherosclerosis that should be addressed include being overweight, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar in patients with diabetes. Smoking is also a risk factor and patients should carefully consider the benefits of quitting, especially if they require surgery to help restore the blood supply as surgery is much less likely to work in active smokers. Patients should seek advice from their GP in relation to the management of their risk factors, including options for stopping smoking. Many patients can avoid surgery if they are able to improve their lifestyle.