Doctor’s Tip: Non-heart attack health issues related to hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis)

Dr. Greg Feinsinger

February is heart month, and the last few weekly columns have been about heart attacks — the most common cause of death in men and women in societies on a Western diet — rich in saturated fat from animal products, processed food and added oil. Heart attacks are caused by plaque in coronary arteries that ruptures, blocking the blood flow to part of the myocardium (heart muscle).

Atherosclerosis causes other health problems as well, which are discussed in today’s column. There’s still time to schedule a carotid IMT to assess the health of your arteries, offered at a special price during the month of February, at Compass Peak Imaging in Glenwood.

NON-HEART ATTACK HEART PROBLEMS: 1. Heart attacks are sudden events, but occasionally atherosclerotic plaque can cause slow-growing, incomplete blockages that can cause pain when the heart is stressed by exertion — a condition called “angina.” 2. Damage to the myocardium (heart muscle) can occur from extensive plaque in coronary arteries, resulting in congestive heart failure — a common cause of poor quality of life. 3. Plaque can form on heart valves, causing them to be leaky or obstructed.

STROKES are the third most common cause of death in Western countries, and the most common cause of chronic disability. They can be caused when blood vessels in the brain burst, and by clots that travel from another part of the body to the brain — both causes being unrelated to atherosclerosis. However, most are caused by rupture of plaque in arteries in the brain, or when a piece of plaque in the carotid arteries in the neck breaks off and travels to the brain, blocking an artery.

CHRONIC KIDNEY DISEASE: The kidneys are very vascular organs, and atherosclerosis of arteries in the kidneys can lead to chronic kidney disease, sometimes necessitating dialysis or kidney transplant. Major atherosclerotic blockages in arteries that bring blood from the aorta to the kidneys can result in severe hypertension.

PERIPHERAL VASCULAR DISEASE involves atherosclerosis in the arteries in the lower extremities, which can lead to poor circulation in the legs, leg pain when walking (known as claudication), nonhealing leg ulcers, and amputations.

DEMENTIA: Vascular dementia is caused by multiple small, atherosclerosis-related strokes. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, the cause of which is unknown. Incidence is higher in people with atherosclerotic disease, and some researchers think that Alzheimer’s may prove to be a vascular disease, in part because the risk factors for Alzheimer’s are exactly the same as those for heart disease (obesity, sedentary lifestyle, smoking, hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, inflammation, unhealthy diet, etc.).

SEXUAL DYSFUNCTION in both men and women is often related to poor blood flow to reproductive organs due to atherosclerosis in small blood vessels. For example, the penile arteries are small and threadlike, and erectile dysfunction in men is “the canary in the coal mine” signifying blocked arteries in other parts of the body.

INTESTINAL ANGINA is abdominal pain after eating due to atherosclerotic blockages in arteries that supply blood to the intestines, which can result in gangrene requiring surgery.

VISION LOSS: Atherosclerotic blockages in arteries that supply blood to the eyes can result in partial or total loss of vision.

In their 2022 book “Healthy Heart, Healthy Brain,” Doctors Brad Bale and Amy Doneen point out that currently care of atherosclerosis is fragmented — heart attacks are cared for by cardiologists, strokes by neurologist, chronic kidney disease by nephrologists, etc. They advocate establishing a new specialty called arteriology — doctors who would specialize in prevention, treatment, and reversal of arterial disease throughout the body.

Dr. Feinsinger is a retired family physician with special interest in disease prevention and reversal through nutrition. Free services through Center For Prevention and The People’s Clinic include: one-hour consultations, shop-with-a-doc at Carbondale City Market, and cooking classes. Call 970-379-5718 for appointment, or email

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