Atherosclerosis is a narrowing of the arteries caused by a
buildup of plaque. It’s also called arteriosclerosis or hardening of the
arteries. Arteries are the blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients from
your heart to the rest of your body.
As you get older, fat and cholesterol can collect in your arteries
and form plaque. The buildup of plaque makes it difficult for blood to flow
through your arteries. This buildup may occur in any artery in your body and
can result in a shortage of blood and oxygen in various tissues of your body.
Pieces of plaque can also break off, causing a blood clot. Atherosclerosis can
lead to heart attack, stroke, and heart failure if left untreated.
Atherosclerosis is a fairly common problem associated with
aging. This condition can be prevented, and many successful treatment options
Are the Types of Atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis occurs when fat, cholesterol, and calcium
harden in your arteries. Atherosclerosis can occur in an artery anywhere in
your body, including your heart, legs, and kidneys.
Other types of atherosclerosis are:
Coronary Artery Disease
Coronary artery disease occurs when the coronary arteries of
your heart become hard. The coronary arteries are blood vessels that provide
your heart’s muscle tissue with oxygen and blood. Plaque prevents blood flow to
Carotid Artery Disease
The carotid arteries are found in your neck and supply blood
to your brain. These arteries may be compromised if plaque builds up in their
walls. The lack of circulation may reduce how much blood and oxygen reaches
your brain’s tissue and cells.
Peripheral Artery Disease
Your legs, arms, and lower body depend on your arteries to
supply blood and oxygen to their tissues. Hardened arteries can cause
circulation problems in these areas of the body.
The renal arteries supply blood to your kidneys. Kidneys filter
waste products and extra water from your blood. Atherosclerosis of these
arteries may lead to kidney failure.
Plaque buildup and subsequent hardening of the arteries restricts
blood flow in the arteries, preventing your organs and tissues from getting the
oxygenated blood they need to function.
The following are common causes of hardening of the arteries:
Cholesterol is a waxy, yellow substance that’s found
naturally in your body and also in certain foods you eat. This substance can
increase in your blood and clog your arteries. It becomes a hard plaque that
restricts or blocks blood circulation to your heart and other organs.
Eating foods high in fat may also lead to plaque buildup.
As you age, your heart and blood vessels work harder to pump
and receive blood. Your arteries may weaken and become less elastic, making
them more susceptible to plaque buildup.
Is at Risk for Atherosclerosis?
Many factors place you at risk for atherosclerosis. Some risks
can be prevented, while others cannot.
If atherosclerosis runs in your family, you may be at risk for
hardening of the arteries. This condition as well as other heart-related
problems may be inherited.
Lack of Exercise
Regular exercise is good for your heart. It keeps your heart
muscle strong and encourages oxygen and blood flow throughout your body. Living
a sedentary lifestyle increases your risk for a host of medical conditions,
including heart disease.
Eating foods high in fats and cholesterol raises your risk for
High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure can damage your blood vessels by making them
weak in some areas. Cholesterol and other substances in your blood may reduce
the flexibility of your arteries over time.
Smoking tobacco products can damage your blood vessels and heart.
People with diabetes have a much higher incidence of coronary
Are the Symptoms of Atherosclerosis?
Most symptoms of atherosclerosis don’t show until a blockage occurs.
Common symptoms include:
- chest pain or angina
- pain in your leg, arm, and anywhere else that has
a blocked artery
- shortness of breath
- confusion, which occurs if the blockage affects
circulation to your brain
- muscle weakness in your legs from lack of
It’s also important to know the symptoms of heart attack and
stroke. Both of these problems can be caused by atherosclerosis and require
immediate medical attention. The symptoms of a heart attack include:
- chest pain or discomfort
- pain in the shoulders, back, neck, arms, and jaw
- abdominal pain
- shortness of breath
- nausea or vomiting
- a sense of impending doom
The symptoms of stroke include:
- weakness or numbness in the face or limbs
- trouble speaking
- trouble understanding speech
- vision problems
- loss of balance
- sudden, severe headache
Call 911 and get to a hospital's emergency room as soon as
possible if you experience symptoms of a heart attack or stroke.
Is Atherosclerosis Diagnosed?
Your doctor will perform a physical exam if you have symptoms of
atherosclerosis. They’ll check for:
- a weakened pulse
- an aneurysm, which is an abnormal bulging or
widening of an artery due to weakness
- slow wound healing, which indicates a restricted
A heart specialist called a cardiologist may listen to your heart
to see if you have any abnormal sounds. They’ll be listening for a whooshing
noise, which indicates that an artery is blocked. Your doctor will order more
tests if they think you may have atherosclerosis. These tests can include:
- a blood test to check your cholesterol levels
- a Doppler ultrasound, which uses sound waves to
create a picture of the artery that shows if there’s a blockage
- ankle-brachial index test, which looks for a
blockage in your arms or legs by comparing the blood pressure in each limb
- magnetic resonance arteriography (MRA) or
computed tomography angiography (CTA) to create pictures of the large arteries
in your body
- cardiac angiogram, which requires an injection
of a radioactive dye that can be seen on X-rays to create a picture of the
arteries in your heart
- an electrocardiogram (EKG), which measures the
electrical activity in your heart to look for any areas of decreased blood flow
- a stress test, or exercise tolerance test, which
monitors your heart rate and blood pressure while you exercise on a treadmill
or stationary bicycle
Is Atherosclerosis Treated?
Treatment involves changing your current lifestyle to one that
limits the amount of fat and cholesterol you consume. You may need to exercise
more to improve the health of your heart and blood vessels.
You may also need additional medical treatments, such as:
Medications can help prevent atherosclerosis from worsening.
- cholesterol-lowering medications, including
statins and fibric acid derivatives
- antiplatelet drugs and anticoagulants, such as
aspirin, to prevent blood from clotting and clogging your arteries
- beta blockers or calcium channel blockers to lower
your blood pressure
- diuretics, or water pills, to help lower your blood
- angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors,
which help prevent narrowing of your arteries
In some cases, surgery may be necessary if symptoms are especially
severe, or if muscle or skin tissue are endangered. Possible surgeries for
treating atherosclerosis include:
surgery, which involves using a vessel from somewhere else in your body
or a synthetic tube to divert blood around your blocked or narrowed artery
therapy, which involves dissolving a blood clot by injecting a drug into
your affected artery
which involves using a thin, flexible tube called a catheter and a balloon
to expand your artery
which involves surgically removing fatty deposits from your artery
which involves removing plaque from your arteries by using a catheter
with a sharp blade at one end
to Expect in the Long Term
With treatment, you may see improvement in your health, but this
may take time. The success of your treatment will depend on the severity of
your condition, how promptly it was treated, and whether other organs were
affected. Hardening of the arteries cannot be reversed, but treating the
underlying cause and making healthy lifestyle and dietary changes can help slow
down the process or prevent it from getting worse.
You should work closely with your doctor to make the appropriate
lifestyle changes. You’ll also need to take the proper medications to control
your condition and avoid complications. The complications of atherosclerosis
- heart failure
- heart disease
- heart attack
- abnormal heart rhythm
- peripheral artery disease, which reduces blood
flow to your arms and legs
- kidney failure
Treatment and Prevention
Lifestyle changes can help to prevent as well as treat
atherosclerosis. Unless your atherosclerosis is severe, your doctor may
recommend lifestyle changes as the first line of treatment. Lifestyle changes
- eating a healthy diet that’s low in saturated
fat and cholesterol
- avoiding fatty foods
- adding fish to your diet twice per week
- exercising for 30 to 60 minutes per day, six
days per week
- quitting smoking if you’re a smoker
- losing weight if you’re overweight or obese
- managing stress
- treating conditions associated with
atherosclerosis, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes