What is atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis is a disease in which plaque builds up inside your arteries. Arteries are blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood to your heart and other parts of your body. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances found in the blood. Over time, plaque hardens and narrows your arteries. This limits the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your organs and other parts of your body. Atherosclerosis can lead to serious problems, including heart attack, stroke, or even death.
How common is atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis is a fairly common problem associated with aging. As you get older, your risk for atherosclerosis increases. Genetic or lifestyle factors cause plaque to build up in your arteries as you age. By the time you’re middle-aged or older, enough plaque has built up to cause signs or symptoms. In men, the risk increases after age 45. In women, the risk increases after age 55.
However, it can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What are the symptoms of atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis develops not immediately but gradually. Mild atherosclerosis usually doesn’t have any symptoms.
You usually won’t have atherosclerosis symptoms until an artery is so narrowed or clogged that it can’t supply adequate blood to your organs and tissues. Sometimes a blood clot completely blocks blood flow, or even breaks apart and can trigger a heart attack or stroke.
Symptoms of moderate to severe atherosclerosis depend on which arteries are affected, include:
- If you have atherosclerosis in your heart arteries, you may have symptoms, such as chest pain or pressure (angina).
- If you have atherosclerosis in the arteries leading to your brain, you may have signs and symptoms such as sudden numbness or weakness in your arms or legs, difficulty speaking or slurred speech, temporary loss of vision in one eye, or drooping muscles in your face. These signal a transient ischemic attack (TIA), which, if left untreated, may progress to a stroke.
- If you have atherosclerosis in the arteries in your arms and legs, you may have symptoms of peripheral artery disease, such as leg pain when walking (claudication).
- If you have atherosclerosis in the arteries leading to your kidneys, you develop high blood pressure or kidney failure.
When should I see my doctor?
Early diagnosis and treatment can stop atherosclerosis from worsening and prevent a heart attack, stroke or another medical emergency, so talk to your doctor as soon as possible to prevent this serious condition.
If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consulting with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.
What causes atherosclerosis?
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:
- High cholesterol: They can become a hard plaque that restricts or blocks blood circulation to your heart and other organs.
- Fat: Eating foods high in fat may also lead to plaque buildup.
- Aging: 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.
Some other common causes are:
- Smoking and other sources of tobacco
- Insulin resistance, obesity or diabetes
- Inflammation from diseases, such as arthritis, lupus or infections, or inflammation of unknown cause
What increases my risk for atherosclerosis?
Many factors place you at risk for atherosclerosis. Some risks can be prevented, while others cannot.
- Family history. 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.
- 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.
Other risk factors include:
- High cholesterol
- Smoking and other tobacco use
- A family history of early heart disease
- Lack of exercise
- An unhealthy diet
Diagnosis & Treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How is atherosclerosis diagnosed?
During a physical exam, your doctor may find signs of narrowed, enlarged or hardened arteries, including:
- A weak or absent pulse below the narrowed area of your artery
- Decreased blood pressure in an affected limb
- Whooshing sounds (bruits) over your arteries, heard using a stethoscope
Depending on the results of the physical exam, your doctor may suggest one or more diagnostic tests, including:
- Blood tests: Lab tests can detect increased levels of cholesterol and blood sugar that may increase the risk of atherosclerosis. You’ll need to go without eating or drinking anything but water for nine to 12 hours before your blood test.
- Doppler ultrasound: Your doctor may use a special ultrasound device (Doppler ultrasound) to measure your blood pressure at various points along your arm or leg. These measurements can help your doctor gauge the degree of any blockages, as well as the speed of blood flow in your arteries.
- Ankle-brachial index: This test can tell if you have atherosclerosis in the arteries in your legs and feet. Your doctor may compare the blood pressure in your ankle with the blood pressure in your arm. This is known as the ankle-brachial index. An abnormal difference may indicate peripheral vascular disease, which is usually caused by atherosclerosis.
- Electrocardiogram (ECG): An ECG can often reveal evidence of a previous heart attack. If your signs and symptoms occur most often during exercise, your doctor may ask you to walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike during an ECG.
- Stress test: A stress test, also called an exercise stress test, is used to gather information about how well your heart works during physical activity. Because exercise makes your heart pump harder and faster than it does during most daily activities, an exercise stress test can reveal problems within your heart that might not be noticeable otherwise. An exercise stress test usually involves walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike while your heart rhythm, blood pressure and breathing are monitored.
- Cardiac catheterization and angiogram: This test can show if your coronary arteries are narrowed or blocked. A liquid dye is injected into the arteries of your heart through a long, thin tube (catheter) that’s fed through an artery, usually in your leg, to the arteries in your heart. As the dye fills your arteries, the arteries become visible on X-ray, revealing areas of blockage.
- Other imaging tests: Your doctor may use ultrasound, a computerized tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) to study your arteries. These tests can often show hardening and narrowing of large arteries, as well as aneurysms and calcium deposits in the artery walls.
How 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. Medications include:
- 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 pressure
- 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:
- Bypass 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
- Thrombolytic therapy, which involves dissolving a blood clot by injecting a drug into your affected artery
- Angioplasty, which involves using a thin, flexible tube called a catheter and a balloon to expand your artery
- Endarterectomy, which involves surgically removing fatty deposits from your artery
- Atherectomy, which involves removing plaque from your arteries by using a catheter with a sharp blade at one end
Lifestyle changes & Home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage atherosclerosis?
These home remedies may help you reduce the risk of atherosclerosis, include:
- 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.
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Atherosclerosis. http://www.webmd.com/heart-disease/what-is-atherosclerosis#1. Accessed 19 Feb, 2017.
Atherosclerosis. http://www.healthline.com/health/atherosclerosis. Accessed 19 Feb, 2017.
Atherosclerosis. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/atherosclerosis/atrisk. Accessed 19 Feb, 2017.
Review Date: February 19, 2017 | Last Modified: September 12, 2019