Clogged arteries do far-ranging harm By Bryant Stamford When you consume the typical American diet high in saturated fat, cholesterol, salt and simple sugar, bad things happen, particularly in the arteries. Plaque forms on the arterial walls, gradually and progressively clogging the arteries with sludge in the same way your kitchen drain pipes get clogged and sluggish from debris. The process of clogging is called atherosclerosis. Arteries are precious highways that transport life-sustaining blood to all parts of the body. Some parts, like the organs, must have a constant and copious supply of blood, because they require lots of oxygen, which the blood provides. Interruption of the supply of oxygen can cause considerable damage -- even death -- in a short time. Impaired arterial blood flow is most often associated with the heart. When blood supply to the heart muscle is less than the demand, chest pain results; this is called angina pectoris. If blood supply is completely cut off to a section of the heart for more than two hours, the heart tissue begins to die. This is called a myocardial infarction, or heart attack. Although the heart is the focus of attention when it comes to blood flow, the impact can be seen all over the body. Head to toe Recent research suggests that in older folks, ages 70 to 79, the progression of atherosclerosis in arteries that feed the brain may be a cause of depression. This is an interesting finding, because depression is common in the elderly and has far-reaching negative effects. For example, older folks who are depressed may be at greater risk of becoming senile or developing Alzheimer's disease. Since we don't know what causes Alzheimer's, perhaps the linkage between atherosclerosis and depression may prove fruitful in leading to a discernible cause. There are, of course, many other causes of depression, but if atherosclerosis is a key factor, we at least know how to prevent it, which is more than we can say about most other causes of depression. Atherosclerosis can occur in any artery in the body, including those in the legs. When the clogging process becomes advanced over years, blood flow to leg muscles is compromised, causing severe pain while walking. As with angina pectoris, pain in the legs occurs because the demand for oxygen by the contracting muscles is greater than the amount that can be supplied. As the demand/supply ratio worsens, pain increases, forcing you to stop exercising. Rest reduces the metabolic activity in muscles, reducing the demand for blood flow and oxygen, allowing the supply to catch up, stopping the pain. This condition in the legs is called claudication. A key feature is that each time you experience pain during walking, it takes about the same amount of time for the pain to subside when you stop to rest. Many people will experience claudication, but because they have no other symptoms, they will ignore the implications and simply adjust to the situation and rest when necessary. The implications are, of course, that atherosclerosis has reached an advanced stage in the legs, which means the clogging process is likely to be pretty far along in other arteries as well, perhaps in those that feed the heart. This means that if you have symptoms as described, with severe leg pain upon exertion, seek the advice of a cardiologist immediately. It may save your life. In between Atherosclerosis also can impact the area that lies about midway between the head and the toes. When atherosclerosis progresses in the arteries that transport blood into the penis, erections are compromised. This is referred to as erectile dysfunction, or impotence. Erectile dysfunction can have other causes, including psychological and neurological conditions, medications, diabetes, hormonal deficiencies, and others. But, up to 60 percent of impotence in men over age 60 is caused by atherosclerosis. This explains the billions spent on Viagra, Cialis and Levitra -- FDA-approved drugs for erectile dysfunction that stimulate blood flow into the arteries that feed the penis. The bottom line The legacy of a lousy lifestyle is atherosclerosis that progresses slowly but surely and without symptoms until it's advanced. Atherosclerosis can be present in any artery in the body. Therefore, unless you clean up your lifestyle, you run the risk of all sorts of nasty outcomes, including heart attack, depression, leg pain upon exertion and erectile dysfunction. Such daunting outcomes should help persuade even the most stubborn among us to overhaul their diet and get some daily exercise.