As we age, cholesterol and fatty substances build up in our arteries, causing the arteries to narrow and increasing our risk for cardiovascular disease, including both carotid artery disease and coronary artery (heart) disease. The relationship between the two diseases is direct: if you are at risk for heart disease, then you are also at risk for carotid artery disease, and vice versa. While some of the risk factors for carotid artery disease are determined by heredity, others can be managed through lifestyle changes. So, while narrowed arteries, or atherosclerosis, may be a systemic problem throughout your body, lifestyle changes can also result in systemic improvement throughout the body. In conjunction with your care team, you can evaluate your risk factors and develop a plan for managing your health.
Risk factors for carotid artery disease include the following:
Smoking. Blood vessels are equipped with a smooth inner lining that can slow the process of atherosclerosis. 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.
Age. Plaque buildup 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 is progressive. Between the ages of 50-59, about 1% of adults have major plaque build-up in the carotid arteries. By ages 80-89, 10% 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.
High blood pressure. A blood pressure of 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 arteries. High blood pressure exerts levels of force on artery walls that can cause scarring, rupture, and the formation of plaque deposits.
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 can all contribute to controlling cholesterol levels and reducing the risk of carotid artery disease.
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.
Diabetes. Patients with diabetes are more likely to have high blood pressure as well as high cholesterol, both of which can cause atherosclerosis.
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.
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 host of other carotid artery disease risk factors, including diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.