Atherosclerosis is a condition that causes the buildup of cholesterol and fat in your arteries, which can eventually lead to restricted or blocked blood flow to your organs and tissues. Since symptoms are usually not present when this condition is in the mild stages, knowing if you are at risk for developing atherosclerosis can be very important for receiving a proper diagnosis.
There are certain factors that put you at a higher risk for developing atherosclerosis. These include:
- Smoking and other tobacco use
- Lack of exercise
- A family history of heart disease
- High cholesterol
If multiple risk factors apply to you, then you will probably be tested for atherosclerosis as a precaution, even if you are not showing symptoms yet. Additionally, if you doctor notices small signs of narrow, hardened, or enlarged arteries during a regular physical exam, they will likely suggest further investigation.
These signs can include a weak or absent pulse below your artery, decreased blood pressure in one of your limbs, signs of a pulsating bulge which could be an aneurysm behind your knee or in your abdomen, inadequate healing of a wound where your blood flow is restricted, or whooshing sounds heard in your arteries through a stethoscope.
If any of these signs are detected during a physical exam, and especially if you also have more than one risk factor for atherosclerosis, then your doctor will likely recommend some diagnostic testing. The more common tests for diagnosing atherosclerosis include:
- Blood tests: This is a fairly simple test that will be able to indicate if there are increased levels of blood sugar and cholesterol found in your blood stream. If this is the case, then atherosclerosis is a possible diagnosis.
- Ankle-brachial index: This is a test to see if you have atherosclerosis in the arteries of your legs and feet. It involves comparing the blood pressure in your arm with the blood pressure in your ankle. If there is an abnormal difference in blood pressure, this could indicate atherosclerosis.
- Stress test: This is also referred to as an exercise stress test, and it is used to gauge how well your heart is able to perform during periods of physical activity. This kind of test can reveal problems your heart might be having that would not be noticeable without the increased pumping produced by exercise.
- Doppler ultrasound: This is a special ultrasound device that measures your blood pressure at various different points along your leg or arm. This test is to determine the severity of blockage and how fast your blood is flowing in your arteries.
- Electrocardiogram: This kind of test can be used to reveal evidence of any previous heart attacks or damage caused to the heart. It works by recording electrical signals as they travel through your heart.
- Imaging tests: Other imaging tests, such as a CT (computerized tomography) scan or a MRI (magnetic resonance angiography) may be used to study your arteries as well.
- Cardiac catheterization and angiogram: During this procedure, a liquid dye is injected into your arteries, which will make the arteries visible on an X-ray, revealing any areas of narrowing or blockage.
Though there are some risk factors for atherosclerosis that cannot be helped, such as age or family history, there are some lifestyle changes you can make to help reduce your risk. These things include:
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Eating a healthy diet
- Exercising regularly
- Quitting smoking