Research into atherosclerosis: 4 scientists talk about their work

Couple reading BHF pamphlet

At least 2.6 million people in the UK have narrowing of the arteries around the heart, which can lead to a heart attack, angina, or both. Judy O’Sullivan caught up with the latest research into new ways to tackle atherosclerosis.

Most of us know the outward signs of ageing all too well. But unless you have obvious symptoms, it’s easy to forget about what’s going on inside your body.

Like the rest of our body, our arteries aren’t exempt from the ravages of time. From early childhood, fatty materials called plaques build up in the artery walls, slowly progressing with each passing decade.

For some of us, these fatty plaques cause narrowing of the arteries and reduce blood flow to key organs, often as early as our 40s or 50s. The medical term for this is atherosclerosis and it often affects the arteries around the heart, leading to coronary heart disease and heart attacks. If it affects the arteries delivering blood to the brain, it may cause a stroke, and if it affects those supplying the legs, it could lead to peripheral arterial disease.

There is no cure for atherosclerosis but medication and a healthy lifestyle can slow down its progress, and the symptoms can be relieved with medication, angioplasty and surgery.

See an award-winning video of the movement of blood through the arteries, created by some of our atherosclerosis researchers.

Over the past 50 years, we’ve invested millions into researching the causes and treatments for this potentially life-threatening condition. Our funded research has significantly contributed towards halving the death rate from coronary heart disease. But the fight is far from over.

Fast facts on atherosclerosis

Who gets it?

Risk increases as you get older, but yours will be higher if you:

  • smoke
  • have high blood pressure or high cholesterol
  • are overweight
  • eat a diet high in saturated fats such as butter and cheese
  • are physically inactive
  • have diabetes
  • have a family history.

Would I know if I had it?

Yes if the atherosclerosis is causing a reduction in blood supply to the heart. Chest pain (angina) or shortness of breath on exertion are the most common symptoms. But sometimes the first sign of atherosclerosis is a heart attack or stroke so it’s important to be aware of your risk factors so you can keep them under control and improve your chances of avoiding it.

What can I do about it?

You can lower your risk by not smoking, eating healthily, being active and maintaining a normal weight. If you’re over 40, talk to your practice nurse about a health check, which includes blood pressure and cholesterol measurements, and tell your GP if you have symptoms such as chest pain on exertion.

If you’ve already had a heart attack or stroke, taking the heart medicines prescribed by your doctor will significantly lower your risk of having another heart attack.

Read about patient Abdul Khan's experience of heart disease

Read about Peter Weinberg's research into how atherosclerosis affects the artery lining

Read about Nilesh Samani's research into genetic links to heart disease

Read about Danish Saleheen's research into why heart disease affects more South Asian people

Read about Martin Bennett's clinical trials into which types of fatty plaques are most dangerous

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