Atherosclerosis, sometimes called "hardening of the arteries," occurs when fat, cholesterol, and other substances build up in the walls of arteries. These deposits are called plaques. Over time, these plaques can narrow or completely block the arteries and cause problems throughout the body.
Atherosclerosis is a common disorder.
Atherosclerosis often occurs with aging. As you grow older, plaque buildup narrows your arteries and makes them stiffer. These changes make it harder for blood to flow through them.
Clots may form in these narrowed arteries and block blood flow. Pieces of plaque can also break off and move to smaller blood vessels, blocking them.
These blockages starve tissues of blood and oxygen. This can result in damage or tissue death. It is a common cause of heart attack and stroke.
High blood cholesterol levels can cause hardening of the arteries at a younger age.
For many people, high cholesterol levels are due to a diet that is too high in saturated fats and trans fats.
Other factors that can contribute to hardening of the arteries include:
Atherosclerosis does not cause symptoms until blood flow to part of the body becomes slowed or blocked.
If the arteries supplying the heart become narrow, blood flow can slow down or stop. This can cause chest pain (stable angina), shortness of breath, and other symptoms.
Narrowed or blocked arteries may also cause problems in the intestines, kidneys, legs, and brain.
A health care provider will perform a physical exam and listen to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope. Atherosclerosis can create a whooshing or blowing sound ("bruit") over an artery.
All adults over the age of 18 should have their blood pressure checked every year. More frequent measurement may be needed for those with a history of high blood pressure readings or those with risk factors for high blood pressure.
Cholesterol testing is recommended in all adults. The major national guidelines differ on the suggested age to start testing.
A number of imaging tests may be used to see how well blood moves through your arteries.
Lifestyle changes will reduce your risk of atherosclerosis. Things you can do include:
If your blood pressure is high, it is important for you to lower it and keep it under control.
The goal of treatment is to reduce your blood pressure so that you have a lower risk of health problems caused by high blood pressure. You and your provider should set a blood pressure goal for you.
Your provider may want you to take medicine for abnormal cholesterol levels or for high blood pressure if lifestyle changes do not work. This will depend on:
Your provider may suggest taking aspirin or another medicine to help prevent blood clots from forming in your arteries. These medicines are called antiplatelet drugs. DO NOT take aspirin without first talking to your provider.
Losing weight if you are overweight and reducing blood sugar if you have diabetes or pre-diabetes can help reduce the risk of developing atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis cannot be reversed once it has occurred. However, lifestyle changes and treating high cholesterol levels can prevent or slow the process from becoming worse. This can help reduce the chances of having a heart attack and stroke as a result of atherosclerosis.
In some cases, the plaque is part of a process that causes a weakening of the wall of an artery. This can lead to a bulge in an artery called an aneurysm. Aneurysms can break open (rupture). This causes bleeding that can be life threatening.
Reviewed By: Michael A. Chen, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team. Editorial update 09/04/2019.