How to Prevent Carotid Artery Disease
For many people, the first sign they have carotid artery disease is a stroke. That's because carotid artery disease doesn't typically have any noticeable symptoms — so if you're not thoroughly familiar with your own health and the risk factors for the disease, it's hard to know whether you should be doing more to avoid worsening the condition or prevent it altogether.
But there are several lifestyle choices you can make every day to lower your risk of developing carotid artery disease or worsening it, and to avoid the medical emergency of a stroke.
What’s happening with carotid artery disease?
Carotid artery disease refers to a hardening of the carotid arteries — blood vessels located on either side of your neck that bring blood to the brain. A substance called plaque builds up on the inside of the arteries, making it more difficult for blood to pass through. (Plaque is made up of cholesterol, calcium, fat, and other substances traveling through the bloodstream.)
According to the CDC, 87% of all strokes are ischemic, which means they are caused by blocked blood flow to the brain. Blood carries oxygen to the brain, and if the brain is cut off from oxygen for even a few minutes, brain cells start dying. Strokes result from carotid artery disease when some of the plaque in the carotid arteries breaks off, forming a blood clot that blocks blood flow to the brain.
Strokes are extremely dangerous, and the stroke risk carotid artery disease presents is significant. As you know, the condition does not come with noticeable symptoms, so to avoid a carotid artery disease-related stroke, you have to be proactive. It's critical to understand the risk factors, make daily choices that support your health, and stay up-to-date on what's going on inside your body so you can continue living life to the fullest.
Carotid Artery Disease Doesn't Go Away
Once plaque develops inside your arteries, it won't go away on its own, even if you are making lifestyle changes or taking medication. Occasionally, in severe cases, a doctor may recommend surgical options to open up the arteries or remove the plaque; but most of the time carotid artery disease is about management and avoiding worsening the condition.
Surgical options include:
- Carotid Angioplasty and Stenting: To open up the arteries, a procedure called carotid angioplasty and stenting can be used, which allows the doctor to use a tiny balloon catheter to open up the artery and insert a small mesh tube to keep the pathway open.
- Carotid Endarterectomy: Only in the most serious cases does a doctor recommend surgery to remove the plaque, but this procedure is called a carotid endarterectomy. An incision is made at the site of the buildup, the plaque is removed from the inside of the artery, and the vessel is stitched back up, restoring proper blood flow.
Because surgery is not a recommended solution for most carotid artery disease patients, it's even more important to do what you can to prevent the disease altogether or, at minimum, prevent it from getting worse.
What You Can Do to Prevent Carotid Artery Disease
There are three primary ways you can prevent carotid artery disease or, if you've already been diagnosed, prevent further plaque buildup.
1. Know Your Risk
Though carotid artery disease does not present noticeable symptoms, some people are more likely to develop the condition than others. For example, carotid artery disease occurs much more often in older adults aged 55+ than younger adults. Risk factors like these will be your guideposts to knowing if and when you need to get screened for carotid artery disease. If you exhibit more than one of these risk factors, consider talking to your doctor about whether you should get screened:
- Age 55+
- Smoking (past or present)
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Family history of cardiovascular disease, heart disease, or stroke
2. Manage Other Health Conditions
Several of the risk factors for carotid artery disease include other health conditions like high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure. Keeping these conditions under control is going to be a major key to preventing developing carotid artery disease or worsening it.
3. Maintain Healthy Habits
Going hand-in-hand with managing other health conditions is making healthy lifestyle choices. If you smoke, the number one thing you can do to prevent carotid artery disease is quit. Smoking tobacco damages the lining of blood vessels and increases plaque buildup. Another major way you can prevent buildup is by keeping your cholesterol in check by avoiding fried foods, alcohol, sugar, heavy creams and dressings, and fatty cuts of meat. Getting plenty of exercise, managing blood pressure levels through medication if needed, and working toward maintaining a healthy weight are all important factors in avoiding carotid artery disease.
If you exhibit two or more risk factors for carotid artery disease, talk to your doctor about getting screened. The more informed you are about your health, the better you can confidently make decisions about how to move forward. If you're 55 or older, it's wise to get screened annually. If you are 40 or older and exhibit more than one additional risk factor, you should also consider annual screenings.
Life Line Screening's carotid artery screenings are non-invasive, painless ultrasounds. The technician uses the ultrasound machine to create an image of the carotid arteries and determine the level of blockage, if any. You can schedule a screening anytime on our website.
The Bottom Line
It's important to be proactive about your health so that you can understand your risks and take the right steps to move forward confidently and enjoy life to the fullest.
Plaque buildup cannot be reversed. If you're at risk, get screened as soon as possible. Learn more about carotid artery disease screenings here.