The deadliest enemies tend to be the most quiet and stealthy.  They don’t announce themselves or make a lot of noise as they stalk us.  When they finally strike, it’s often too late to deal with them effectively.

That’s so true of the most deadly killer of all, atherosclerosis.  Don’t let the long name fool you into thinking he’s some obscure medical geek that you’ll probably never meet.  He is the killer of about 1/3 of adults and he substantially attacks over half of adults.  He is the usual root cause of the number one cause of death, heart disease, and the number five cause of death, stroke, besides leading to massive numbers of non-fatal but crippling attacks on nearly every organ system in the body.

So let me introduce you to him so that you’ll know him.  Atherosclerosis is the name for the process of damaging plaque-formation on the inner walls of your arteries.  Eventually that plaque can block off vital circulation to your:

  • heart, causing a heart attack
  • brain, causing a stroke
  • kidneys, causing kidney failure
  • limbs, causing peripheral artery disease which sometimes leads to amputations

Atherosclerosis starts stalking us much sooner than you might think.  Fatty streaks are already found on the inner arterial walls of many teens, especially those with some of the known risk factors for atherosclerosis.  Those risk factors, for adults as well as teens, include:

  • smoking
  • diabetes
  • elevated lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides)
  • high blood pressure
  • lack of exercise
  • obesity
  • stress
  • family history of heart disease or stroke

So how do we know if he’s stalking us?  One way to at least suspect him is by knowing how many of the above risk factors we have.  Also, if we’re having symptoms such as chest pain, we can have a stress test or other testing of the heart.  Of course we would really like to know what’s happening before symptoms show up.  Nowadays there are more aggressive, yet non-invasive ways to look into this.  And they are quite affordable.  So besides just getting cholesterol and diabetes panels, we can get:

  • an inflammation panel from a heart lab that indicate if there is plaque-generating inflammation inside our arteries
  • simple imaging such as a coronary calcium score which shows whether we have calcified plaque around the arteries of our heart
  • a sophisticated but affordable ultrasound (called CIMT) which looks at the walls of our carotid arteries in the neck. This generates an artery age and indicates whether there is active inflammation or plaque that would suggest a greater risk for stroke or heart attack.

So, yes, atherosclerosis is a generally silent stalker killing more people than cancer or any other scarier-sounding killer.  But there are ways to flush him out into the open.  Even better, there are then ways to disarm him before he strikes.  If you haven’t taken a good look around for him, get with your doctor soon and do some serious exploring.