As we age, cholesterol, calcium and fatty substances build up in our arteries, creating plaque deposits that narrow the arteries and increase our risk for cardiovascular disease, including both carotid artery disease and coronary artery (heart) disease. While coronary artery disease reduces blood flow to the heart and can cause a heart attack, carotid artery disease reduces blood flow in the neck arteries that supply blood to the brain, potentially causing a stroke.
While some of the risk factors for carotid artery disease are determined by heredity, the good news is that others can be managed through lifestyle changes. In conjunction with your care team, you can evaluate your risk factors and develop a plan for managing your health.
Risk Factors You Can Manage with Your Care Team
Talk with your physician about your risk factors for carotid artery disease and stroke. The following risk factors are all ones that can be managed through lifestyle changes and/or medication.
Smoking. Blood vessels are equipped with a smooth inner lining that can slow the process of atherosclerosis, or “hardening of the arteries.” Cigarette smoking contributes directly to carotid artery disease by damaging the smooth inner lining of arteries throughout the body. This damage diminishes the ability of the arteries to prevent blockages and contributes to the formation of plaque deposits on damaged areas of the arteries. Smoking also increases blood pressure and lowers levels of "good" cholesterol, thereby increasing other risk factors.
High blood pressure. A blood pressure over 140/90 is considered high blood pressure. If your blood pressure is unmanaged and above this mark, then you are at increased risk of having carotid arteries prone to damage and blockage from hardening of the arterial wall. High blood pressure places stress on the artery walls that can cause scarring, rupture and the formation of plaque deposits over time. Learn more about managing your blood pressure.
High “bad” cholesterol level. A high level of LDL cholesterol in the blood (sometimes referred to as "bad" cholesterol) leads directly to cholesterol deposits in the arteries. Exercise, medication and diet all can contribute to controlling cholesterol levels and reducing the risk of carotid artery disease.
Diabetes. Patients with diabetes are more likely to have high blood pressure as well as high cholesterol, both of which can cause atherosclerosis. Click here to learn more about diabetes and how it is linked with heart disease.
Obesity. Being overweight contributes to high blood pressure and diabetes, both of which increase the risk of carotid artery disease. Managing your weight may reduce multiple risk factors. Click here for ideas for managing weight through a healthy diet and exercise…
Physical inactivity. If you are diagnosed with carotid artery disease, your physician may prescribe exercise as part of your wellness plan. Exercise reduces the incidence of a number of other carotid artery disease risk factors, including diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Click here for ideas for becoming more physically active.
Risk Factors You Can’t Control
Some risk factors for carotid artery disease and stroke are out of your control. If you are at greater risk based on the factors below, it is especially important to manage the risk factors you can control, such as high blood pressure or smoking.
Age. Plaque build-up in the arteries is a natural part of the aging process, but also one that can be hastened by poor diet and other factors. The build-up of plaque in adults increases with age. Between the ages of 50 and 59, about 1 percent of adults have major plaque build-up in the carotid arteries. By the time they are 80–89 years old, 10 percent of adults have substantial plaque build-up. Men are at higher risk under the age of 75, while women face the greatest risk after age 75.
Heredity. A family history of atherosclerosis is a risk factor for carotid artery disease. If you have a family member with coronary artery disease, carotid artery disease, or peripheral artery disease, then you are at risk for these diseases as well.
If you are concerned about carotid artery disease, you may wonder if you are at risk for stroke. The SecondsCount Stroke Risk Quiz can help you sort myth from fact when it comes to stroke risk.If you have already been diagnosed with carotid artery disease, learning more about stroke and its risk factors will help you understand the complete picture of why and how the disease process must be slowed. Your physician will discuss your treatment options with you.
If you are at risk for carotid artery disease, it is also important to know that you are at risk of coronary artery disease (heart attack), peripheral artery disease (leg and foot complications), and renal artery disease (kidney complications). The same disease process of plaque building up in arteries is behind all of these conditions.