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Carotid disease occurs when deposits of fat (plaques) block the blood vessels that supply blood to your brain and head (carotid arteries). The blockade increases your risk of stroke, a medical emergency that occurs when the blood supply to the brain is cut or seriously reduced.
Stroke robs your brain of oxygen. Brain cells begin to die within minutes. Stroke is the leading cause of death and the leading cause of permanent disability in the United States.
Often times, in the early stages, carotid disease does not result in signs or symptoms. The disease can go unnoticed until it’s severe enough to clear blood from your brain and cause a stroke or TIA.
The signs and symptoms of a stroke or TIA include:
Sudden numbness or weakness of the face or limbs, often only on one side of the body
Sudden difficulty speaking and understanding
Sudden difficulty seeing in one or both eyes
Sudden dizziness or loss of balance
Sudden and severe headache with no known cause
Carotid artery disease is caused by the build-up of plaque in the arteries that supply blood to your brain. Plaques are clumps of cholesterol, calcium, fibrous tissue, and other cell debris that accumulate in areas of microscopic damage in the artery. This process is known as atherosclerosis.
The carotid arteries blocked by plaques are rigid and narrow. Clogged carotid arteries have difficulty delivering oxygen and nutrients to vital brain structures that are responsible for your daily functioning.
Factors that increase your risk of developing carotid artery disease include:
Arterial hypertension. Excessive pressure on the walls of the arteries can weaken them, making them more prone to damage.
The use of tobacco. Nicotine can irritate the inner lining of your arteries. Smoking also increases your heart rate and blood pressure.
Diabetes. Diabetes reduces your ability to process fat effectively, putting you at increased risk of high blood pressure and atherosclerosis.
High levels of fat in the blood. High levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and high levels of triglycerides, a fat in the blood, promote plaque build-up.
Family history. Your risk of developing carotid artery disease is higher if one parent has atherosclerosis or coronary artery disease.
Age. Arteries become less flexible and more prone to injury as they age.
Obesity. Being overweight increases the risk of high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis and diabetes.
Keep the following suggestions in mind to prevent or slow the progression of carotid disease:
Do not smoke. A few years after quitting, a former smoker’s risk of stroke is similar to that of a non-smoker.
Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity contributes to other risk factors such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and sleep apnea.
Limit cholesterol and fat. In particular, reducing saturated fat can reduce plaque build-up in your arteries.
Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. They contain nutrients like potassium, folic acid, and antioxidants that can protect against TIA or stroke.
Limit your salt intake. Too much salt (sodium) can increase blood pressure in people sensitive to sodium. Experts recommend healthy adults eat less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day.