Atherosclerosis, more commonly known as hardening of the arteries, is a serious condition. Once you’ve been diagnosed with the disease, you’ll need to make very important, lasting lifestyle changes to prevent it further complications.
But can the disease be reversed? That’s a more complicated question.
The word “atherosclerosis” comes from the Greek words “athero”(“paste”) and “sclerosis” (“hardness”). This is why the condition is also called “hardening of the arteries.”
The disease starts slowly and progresses over time. If you have high cholesterol, the excess cholesterol can eventually collect and deposit in the artery walls. The body can then react to the buildup by sending white blood cells to attack it, much like they’d attack a bacterial infection, and inflammation can occur.
The cells can undergo changes or die after eating the cholesterol, and the dead cells can also begin to collect in the artery. This can lead to inflammation. When inflammation lasts for a longer period, scarring, stiffening, and calcification can happen. By this stage, the plaque formed in the arteries typically hardens.
When arteries become narrow, blood may be unable to get to the areas that it needs to reach.
There may also be a higher risk of a heart attack or stroke. This can happen if a blood clot breaks away from another area in the body. The clot could then get stuck in the narrow artery and cut off blood supply completely.
Dr. Howard Weintraub, a cardiologist at NYU Langone Medical Center, says that once you’re diagnosed with atherosclerosis, the most you can do is prevent progression and further complications.
He also explains that “in the studies that have been done so far, the amount of reduction in plaque buildup that’s seen over the course of 1 or 2 years is measured in a 100th of a millimeter.”
Medical treatment, regular exercise, and dietary changes can be used to keep atherosclerosis from getting worse and stabilize the plaque, but they aren’t able to reverse the disease.
For example, while aspirin’s blood-thinning qualities are beneficial in reducing blood clots and thus preventing strokes and heart attacks, research in 2017 found that it had no effect in reducing arterial plaque.
Some medications may also be prescribed to increase your comfort, particularly if you’re having chest or leg pain as a symptom.
Statins are the most effective and commonly used cholesterol-lowering medications in the United States. They work by blocking the protein in your liver that the body uses to make low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or bad cholesterol.
According to Weintraub, the lower you knock the LDL down, the more likely it is that you’ll get the plaque to stop growing.
There are seven commonly prescribed statins available in the United States:
- atorvastatin (Lipitor)
- fluvastatin (Lescol)
- lovastatin (Altoprev)
- pitavastatin (Livalo)
- pravastatin (Pravachol)
- rosuvastatin (Crestor)
- simvastatin (Zocor)
Eating a balanced diet and engaging in regular exercise can both be very important parts of reducing high blood pressure and high cholesterol, two major contributors to atherosclerosis.
Even if your healthcare professional prescribes a statin, you may want to consider eating nutrient-rich foods and exercising regularly. Your doctor may be able to help you with this as well.
Weintraub says, “anybody can out-eat a medicine that we give them.” He cautions that without the balanced diet, “the medicine still works, but not as well.”
If you smoke, you may want to consider quitting smoking. Smoking can cause a buildup of plaque in the arteries. It can also reduce the amount of good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein, or HDL) you have and can raise your blood pressure, which can increase stress on your arteries.
Here are some other lifestyle changes you can try to make.
Aim for 30 to 60 minutes per day of moderate cardio.
This amount of activity may help you:
- manage a moderate weight
- maintain a stable blood pressure
- boost your HDL (good cholesterol) levels
- lower your triglycerides
Managing a moderate weight can lower your risk of developing complications due to atherosclerosis.
The following tips are a few ways to do this. You can try to:
- Decrease sugar intake. Reduce or eliminate consumption of sodas, sweet tea, and other drinks or desserts sweetened with sugar or corn syrup.
- Eat more fiber. Increase consumption of whole grains and have 5 servings a day of fruit and vegetables.
- Eat healthy fats. Olive oil, avocado, and nuts are healthy options.
- Eat leaner cuts of meat. Grass-fed beef and chicken or turkey breast are good examples.
- Avoid trans fat and limit saturated fats. These are mostly found in ultra-processed foods, and both can cause your body to produce more cholesterol.
- Limit your sodium intake. Too much sodium in your diet can contribute to high blood pressure.
- Limit your alcohol intake. Drinking regularly can raise your blood pressure, contribute to unintended weight gain and interfere with restful sleep.
What if medication and dietary changes don’t work?
Surgery is considered aggressive treatment and is only performed if the blockage is life threatening and a person hasn’t responded to medication therapy. A surgeon may either remove plaque from an artery, put in a stent, or redirect blood flow around the blocked artery.
Your healthcare professional may determine during a regular physical exam if you have risk factors for atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis tends to occur more commonly in people with a history of smoking or conditions such as:
Your healthcare professional may order tests, including:
- Imaging tests. An ultrasound, CT scan, or a magnetic resonance angiography can allow your healthcare professional to see inside your arteries and determine the severity of the blockage.
- Ankle-brachial index. The blood pressure in your ankles is compared with the blood pressure in your arm. If there’s an unusual difference, you might have peripheral artery disease.
- Cardiac stress tests. Your healthcare professional monitors your heart with an electrocardiogram while you engage in physical activity, like riding a stationary bike or briskly walking on a treadmill. Since exercise makes your heart work harder, it may help your healthcare professional find out if there is a blockage.
Although atherosclerosis is not “reversible” as such, there are a variety of treatments available to slow down the process and prevent it from worsening, up to and including surgery. Talk to your doctor about your best options.