The Plaque Facts (Heart Health)
You might expect to hear the term “plaque buildup” from your dentist, but your cardiologist? The heart can be affected by a different kind of plaque that is created by excess cholesterol deposits in the coronary arteries.
Plaque buildup in the heart narrows the space in the coronary arteries through which blood can flow, decreasing the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the heart. If not enough oxygen-carrying blood is able to pass through the narrowed arteries to reach the heart muscle, the heart may respond with a pain called angina. The pain usually occurs during exercise when the heart needs more oxygen. It is typically felt in the chest or sometimes in other places like the left arm and shoulder.
However, in some cases, this same inadequate blood supply will not cause any symptoms.
Plaques come in various sizes and shapes. Throughout the coronary arteries many small plaques build themselves into the walls of the arteries, blocking less than half of the artery opening. These small plaques are often invisible on many of the tests doctors use to identify coronary heart disease. It used to be thought that the most dangerous plaques and the ones most likely to cause total blockage of coronary arteries were the largest ones. The largest plaques are, in fact, the ones most likely to cause angina. However, small plaques are now considered to be very unstable and more likely to rupture or burst, and release their cholesterol contents into the bloodstream. When this happens, it triggers blood clotting inside the artery. If the blood clot totally blocks the artery, it stops blood flow and causes a heart attack. In this scenario, the muscle on the far side of the blood clot does not get enough oxygen and begins to die. The damage can be permanent.
Lowering your blood cholesterol level can slow, stop, or even reverse the buildup of plaque. If you have high cholesterol, you should speak with your doctor about lifestyle changes, such as eating healthier, becoming more active, and losing weight. If appropriate, your doctor can also prescribe you medication that will help lower your cholesterol.