What are arteries?
Arteries (with one notable exception) are the blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood away from the chambers of the heart to the body’s tissues. The exception is the pulmonary artery, which carries blood to the lungs from the heart. In the lungs, it gets charged with oxygen, then sent back to the heart which pumps it out to body.
The main arterial channel is the aorta, which receives freshly oxygenated blood from the heart, and then divides into smaller arteries that service all the body’s tissues. Finally, the channels are so small (less than 0.3mm) that the blood cells can only pass through them one at a time.
Arteries are structurally quite different to veins, which carry de-oxygenated blood back to the heart from the cells. The walls of arteries are thick and muscular, and can contract to keep the blood moving away from the heart and through the body.
Infamous arteries: the coronaries
Of all the arteries, those that get the most press are the coronary arteries. They branch off early on from the aorta, to supply the heart itself with oxygen-rich blood. A blockage anywhere in the circulatory system can potentially spell trouble, but in a coronary artery it means that blood flow to the heart muscle is compromised. If the blood flow is cut off completely, then the part of the heart muscle it supplies can die – in other words, a heart attack.
Like a sandbank slowly forming in a river, a blockage is most likely to develop where the channel is rough. As kids we have beautifully smooth, flexible arteries, but with age and modern living the arterial lining starts to get damaged. Wherever these rough spots develop, fatty deposits are more likely to collect and blood clots are more likely to form.
Coronary artery disease is the number one killer in the western world, and second only to HIV/AIDS in South Africa. Men are at risk about a decade younger than women are. The good news is that there’s a lot you can do to help prevent it, and you already know how:
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