Arterial stiffness is, quite simply, the stiffening of the arteries in the human body. The walls of our arteries are flexible and designed to expand and contract with each pump of the heart. As they stiffen, their elasticity diminishes and our organ health and longevity suffer as a result.
As daunting as it sounds this is a natural process, although the rate at which it happens is something that we can control through healthy choices and attention to lifestyle. There is a lot that we can do to slow this stiffening process down and even reverse it!
How Is Arterial Stiffness Caused?
Thinking of arterial stiffness in the same way we think of joint and muscle stiffness is a good way to understand its causes, as well as the impact it has on our health. Joint pain and muscle tension occur as we age, through underuse by living sedentary lifestyles, through improper nutrition, and from stress, which we often carry in our shoulders and necks. They are also reflective of our own personal history and old injuries can have a strong influence on which aches and pains show up in the future. Joint pain and muscle tension can lead to achiness and trouble moving affected areas.
Similarly, our arteries stiffen with age, if we don’t exercise enough, as a result of stress, and if we’re not nourishing our body with healthy food and drink. The lifestyle of our early years can also have a profound impact on the rate at which we may develop arterial stiffness in the future.
The implications here are less noticeable but can be far more severe than those described in the joints and muscles metaphor. If our arteries are unable to perform their contract-and-expand routine effectively then the heart is burdened to pick up their slack. In this context, 'achiness' can include chest pains and eventually full-on cardiovascular disease and heart attack, while 'trouble with movement' here refers to the arteries’ ability to retain their elasticity. As this function diminishes, our organs receive increasingly less support from the circulatory system. Each pump of blood delivers less oxygen and provides the internal organs with less of a massage, which is vital to their health and functionality.
Measuring Arterial Stiffness
Here at iHeart, we focus on specifically stiffness of the aorta. The aorta is the largest artery in the body and runs parallel to the spine from the chest to the pelvis. It is the heart’s ‘right hand man’ in our cardiovascular system, and as it stiffens our risk for cardiovascular disease increases.
In fact, the aorta is so central to the body’s organ network that our body-wide health is threatened as stiffness increases. Studies have repeatedly proven a link between stiffness of the aorta (aortic stiffness) and risk for brain disease including dementia and Alzheimer’s, and even risk of death from all causes. Health of the aorta directly impacts health of all other organs.
With good attention to diet and exercise, and effective management of stress, it is possible to drastically slow down or even reverse the onset of aortic stiffness. We recently published a free eBook that goes into more detail about this.