“A heart attack” in the making, seen in a section of a coronary artery. The vessel is almost blocked by plaque (pink) and a hemorrhage (red) that has caused clot
Our arteries do the vital job of distributing blood pumped by the heart. Basically, they are pliable tubes, cunningly constructed in three layers to provide a smooth, lightweight pipeline that will withstand the constant, second-by-second pressure of the heart’s pumping. That pressure may vary considerably. Most of the time you may hardly notice your heart beating; at other times, as when you exercise, it responds with a powerful thump.
Beneath a tough and fibrous outer casing, arteries have a thicker but elastic middle layer, with a smooth inner lining to make the blood flow more easily. Like any working surface, the lining is easily. Like damaged. For many reasons, such as high blood pressure, smoking family history and possibly stress, the lining thickens, narrowing the artery.
Cholesterol,which is made by the liver and used to produce new cells and some hormones may be another factor. A diet rich in dairy foods, eggs and meat raises the cholesterol level. Even through frequent reports question whether cholesterol is a serious danger to health, doctors insist that a high blood cholesterol level increases the risk of coronary artery disease or of a stroke.
Damaged areas of the arteries develop raised patches, known as plaques. These consist of fatty deposits and such debris as decaying muscle cells and fibrous tissue. In addition, two types of blood cells contribute to the build-up: large white cells – macrophages – and clumps of platelets, the blood’s smallest cells, whose normal job is to help blood to coagulate in sealing wounds.
As we get older, plaques get more numerous and thicker. Some areas accumulate calcium, and turn into a hard, chalky mass, choking the arteries. Narrow arteries make the job of delivering an adequate blood supply more difficult. At tight spots restricted by plaque, blood clots develop and sometimes break away, drifting through the blood stream to cause blockages elsewhere.
Because the heart and blood are so vital, any diseases of the system are serious. Atherosclerosis, the thickening of the arterial wall, is a major killer in most developed countries. In Britain, it heads the list of fatal diseases. Diseases of the arteries don’t confine their effects to the cardiovascular system. Reduced blood flow to the intestine, the legs and the flow to the intestines, the legs and the kidneys also may cause serious problems.
Arterial disease isn’t inevitable, nor does it attack only the elderly. It is strong linked to unhealthy lifestyles – fatty diets, smoking, lack of exercise. By countering these, all of us have a good chance of beating this killer.