Atherosclerosis can be prevented


By Mahmood Alam, M.D., FACC, FACP

Your good health has an enemy — atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is common. Its effects can be very serious and can lead to strokes, heart attacks and death.  But, you can take steps to protect yourself from this disease.

The inside walls of healthy arteries are smooth and clean. This makes it easy to transport the blood your body needs. But arteries can become clogged. Fatty substances like cholesterol can stick to artery walls. These deposits are called plaque. Plaque can eventually slow or block the flow of blood. This blockage is atherosclerosis. It can affect any artery in your body. When atherosclerosis affects the arteries that supply blood to the heart, it is called coronary artery disease. Two things may occur where a plaque develops. A plaque may break off or a blood clot may form on the plaque’s surface. If either of these situations occur, it may lead to a blockage of an artery and ultimately a heart attack or stroke.

All adults older than age 20 should have their cholesterol level checked every five years. This is done with a blood test. The test should measure total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, HDL (“good”) cholesterol and triglycerides. Talk with your health care provider about your target cholesterol levels.

Several factors put you at greater risk for atherosclerosis, including smoking, being overweight and obese, an inactive lifestyle, high blood pressure and cholesterol, and others.  Having more than one risk factor can increase your risk even more. You can control most of the risk factors; I’ll mention a few ways.

If you smoke, stop. Smoking damages the artery walls, which can lead to atherosclerosis. This makes it easier for plaque to build up. Smoking is even more risky when you have other risk factors like high blood pressure or diabetes. If you want help quitting, call the N.J. Department of Health at 866-NJSTOPS to speak to a counselor. Also, avoid places where there is cigarette smoke. Research suggests that smoke from others can increase your risk of atherosclerosis.

Also, make changes to your diet. Avoid a diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol that can raise your cholesterol levels. Additionally, avoid large amounts of salt and sugar. Be careful with processed foods like frozen dinners. They can be high in fat, sugar, salt and cholesterol.

Regular aerobic exercise can help fight atherosclerosis by reducing the amount of fat in your blood, lowering your blood pressure and cholesterol, and controlling your weight, thus exercise regularly. It’s never too late to start exercising. Brisk walking, swimming, and bicycling are good choices. It’s okay to start slowly and work up to at least 30 to 40 minutes, four to five days a week.

Most importantly, talk about your health, physical activity, and your risk factors with your health care provider and be sure to get regular checkups. Because symptoms appear only after the damage has been done, don’t wait for them to develop before doing something about atherosclerosis. Begin by making lifestyle improvements even if you feel well. If you have atherosclerosis, you may be able to stop it from getting worse. Together, you and your health care provider can decide what steps you need to take to stay healthy.


Board certified internist and interventional cardiology specialist Mahmood Alam, M.D., FACC, FACP, is director of Non-Invasive Cardiology at Hackensack Meridian Health Raritan Bay Medical Center.  Raritan Bay is a recipient of the American Heart Association’s EMS Gold Award for implementing quality improvement measures for the treatment of patients who experience severe heart attacks. Heart attack patients, on average, receive potentially life-saving coronary intervention within 62 minutes at Raritan Bay, compared to the national benchmark of 90 minutes. To make an appointment with Dr. Alam at his Woodbridge office, call 800-560-9990.