Health And Lifestyle For The Over 50s

Carotid Artery Disease: Understanding and Avoiding the ‘Silent’ Killer


Your carotid arteries perform a vital function within your body, carrying oxygenated blood to the front section of the brain. You can feel them when you place your fingers on either side of your neck.

The reason that the carotid arteries are so important is that the front part of our brain is responsible for controlling speech, thought, personality and movement, as well as ability to feel. If this section of the brain was unable to function, it would have a serious impact on your health.

Carotid Artery Disease: What is it?
Sometimes, plaque can accumulate in the carotid arteries. Plaque is hard and brittle, and if a piece breaks off or a blood clot forms, this can travel up to the smaller arteries within the brain, reducing or blocking the flow of blood.

When this occurs, it results in a TIA (transient ischemic attack), or a stroke. Carotid artery disease is one of the most common causes of stroke in the UK; in fact, over half occur as a result of this condition.

Spotting the Symptoms
Unlike other diseases, carotid artery disease is often nearly impossible to detect, due to its lack of symptoms. This is why it is often referred to as a ‘silent killer’, as the first a sufferer may know about their condition is when they’re actually suffering a stroke.

Occasionally, sufferers may experience a TIA beforehand. Unlike a stroke, it only has a temporary effect on brain function, and acts as a powerful warning to address the problem before a stroke occurs. It’s imperative to seek medical attention after a TIA, even if you feel that you’ve made a complete recovery afterwards.

What Happens During a Transient Ischemic Attack?
A TIA, or mini-stroke, is similar to a stroke, but the effects are only temporary. The NHS advises that you keep in mind the word FAST: Face, Arms, Speech, Time:

  • The face may become droopy on one side, particularly around the mouth or eye.
  • The sufferer may not be able to lift their arms and hold them there, as a result of numbness or weakness in the limbs.
  • Speech may become confused or slurred, or they may not be able to speak at all.
  • Call 999 immediately if you identify any of these symptoms.

It’s very important to act quickly. If the individual is suffering a stroke, it takes only 3 to 6 hours for the damage to become irreversible, and it can potentially be fatal.

Identifying Carotid Artery Disease
The only way to identify the condition is to book an examination with your GP. Initially, your doctor will listen to your arteries with a stethoscope to see whether or not they can identify a ‘bruit’, which is an abnormality in the blood flow.

If something is detected, you’re likely to be referred for extra tests. These may include an ultrasound, MRA scan or carotid angiogram.

Protecting Your Carotid Arteries
Risk factors for carotid artery disease are very similar to heart disease. There are a number of lifestyle changes you can adopt to minimise risks of developing the condition. If you smoke, try to stop as soon as possible. Reduce the amount of saturated fats in your diet, which can contribute to high cholesterol. Stay as active as possible, and if you’re obese, talk to your GP about how you can lose some of the weight and improve your health.