Hardening of the arteries is a disease for the ages

April 27, 2013 Rocco G. Ciocca, M.D.

A couple of months ago the New York Times published an interesting article summarizing recent findings of researchers who performed CT scans on mummies from Egypt, Peru, the Aleutian Islands and the American Southwest. One of the striking findings was that 38 percent of Egyptian mummies and 29 percent of all other mummies had definite or probable evidence of hardening of the arteries. The incidence was higher in mummies of people of 40 years or older. The geography and diets for the mummies varied greatly and yet the rates of calcified arteries were fairly similar.

What you should know about atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries:

Hardening of the arteries (also known as atherosclerosis) is a disease that has been strongly associated with multiple risk factors. The risk factors in addition to age include smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension. Many of these risk factors are associated with diets that are high in saturated fats or complex carbohydrates and thus to connect this study to modern times is not easy. People with advanced atherosclerosis are at increased risk for heart disease, stroke, or problems with their legs including amputations and renal failure.

So what should one conclude from this report? Atherosclerotic disease is common. It was common thousands of years ago and it is common today. It is more prevalent as we age and therefore one must be cognizant of atherosclerosis as one ages. It is critically important to have close relationship with a primary care provider so that you can be appropriately screened for atherosclerosis. While some degree of hardening of the arteries may be inevitable as we age, there are risk factors that we can control that can slow the progression of the disease or aid in preventing the occurrence.

Here are a few of the things we can control:

Smoking is one of the leading risk factors. In addition to lung associated complications, atherosclerosis is a major complication of smoking. If you smoke, stop. If you do not smoke, do not start. Hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol are also risk factors that contribute to the development and progression of atherosclerosis and those factors can be controlled with a combination of diet, exercise and when necessary, medications.

We can always learn a great deal by studying the past. This report indicates that atherosclerosis has been present in older individuals for a very long time. The good news is that we now have a greater understanding of what can been done to prevent and control the consequences of atherosclerosis, and we can have a positive impact if we modify risk factors and diagnose it early. Having a close and open relationship with one’s healthcare provider is key.

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