Atherosclerosis is a hardening of your arteries due to gradual plaque buildup. Risk factors include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, tobacco use, obesity, lack of exercise and a diet high in saturated fat. Atherosclerosis develops over time and may not show symptoms until you have complications like a heart attack or stroke.
Atherosclerosis is the gradual buildup of plaque in the walls of your arteries. Arteries are blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood to organs and tissues throughout your body. Plaque (atheroma) is a sticky substance made of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances.
As plaque builds up, your artery wall grows thicker and harder. This “hardening of the arteries” is usually a silent process in the early stages. You may not notice symptoms for a long time. But eventually, as the plaque grows, the opening (lumen) of your artery narrows, leaving less room for blood to flow. This means less blood can reach your organs and tissues. Plus, the constant force of blood flow can lead to plaque erosion or rupture, causing a blood clot to form.
A narrowed artery is like a highway reduced to one lane. But a blood clot is like a barricade in the middle of the road. It blocks blood flow to certain organs or tissue the artery normally feeds. The effects on your body depend on where the blood clot forms. For example, blockages in a coronary artery deprive your heart of oxygen-rich blood, leading to a heart attack.
But there’s a reason for hope. You can lower your risk for atherosclerosis, or slow its progression, by making lifestyle changes and managing underlying conditions. Research shows some treatments can reduce the size of plaque in your arteries (plaque regression) or change its chemical makeup, so it’s less likely to rupture.
That’s why visiting a healthcare provider for yearly checkups is important. They’ll evaluate your risk for atherosclerosis and explain what you can do to lower it.
Atherosclerosis interferes with the normal workings of your cardiovascular system. It can limit or block blood flow to various parts of your body, including your heart and brain. Possible complications of reduced blood flow include:
Atherosclerosis can also weaken your artery walls, leading to the formation of aneurysms.
Early diagnosis and treatment of atherosclerosis can help you avoid or delay complications.
Atherosclerosis is very common. The complications of plaque buildup (including heart attacks and strokes) are the leading cause of death worldwide.
About half of people age 45 to 84 have atherosclerosis but aren’t aware of it, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
If you have warning signs of atherosclerosis, tell a healthcare provider. Early treatment can lower your risk of life-threatening complications.
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Atherosclerosis often doesn’t cause symptoms until an artery is very narrow or blocked. Many people don’t know they have plaque buildup until a medical emergency, like a heart attack or stroke, occurs.
You may notice symptoms if your artery is more than 70% blocked. Listed below are common complications and possible associated symptoms:
Coronary artery disease
Peripheral artery disease (PAD)
Renal artery stenosis
Stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA)
Carotid artery disease
Call 911 or your local emergency number right away if you or someone near you has symptoms of a heart attack, stroke or TIA. These are medical emergencies that require immediate care.
Damage to your artery’s inner lining (endothelium) causes atherosclerosis to begin. The damage usually occurs slowly and over time.
The stages of atherosclerosis happen over many years and include:
There are many risk factors for atherosclerosis. Non-modifiable risk factors are those you can’t change. You may be able to reduce modifiable risk factors, including some medical conditions and lifestyle factors, in some cases.
It’s important to note that some risk factors vary based on your sex assigned at birth. For example, people assigned male at birth (AMAB) face a higher risk of atherosclerosis at a younger age than people assigned female at birth (AFAB).
Non-modifiable risk factors
Talk to your provider about your risks and what you can do to lower them.
To diagnose atherosclerosis or calculate your risk for developing it, a healthcare provider will:
Your healthcare provider may order additional tests to diagnose atherosclerosis and plan treatment. These tests include:
If you have atherosclerosis, your healthcare provider may recommend you see a specialist, such as a:
Atherosclerosis treatment includes one or more of the following:
Your healthcare provider will develop a plan based on your needs. Common treatment goals include:
Lifestyle changes may lower your risk of complications. Your provider will create a plan specific to your needs. General tips include:
Medications target risk factors for plaque buildup and may help slow the progression of atherosclerosis. Your provider may prescribe medications to:
It’s important to take all of your medications as prescribed. Always check with your provider before making any changes to your medication schedule.
Various minimally invasive procedures and complex surgeries can help people with severe blockages or a high risk of complications. Common treatment options include:
You may not be able to prevent atherosclerosis. But you can reduce your risk and lessen the effects of the disease. Here are some steps you can take:
Early diagnosis and treatment can help people with atherosclerosis live healthy, active lives. But the disease can cause medical emergencies and even be fatal. That’s why knowing your risks and working with your healthcare provider to lower them is important.
It’s essential to work closely with your healthcare provider. They’ll keep a close eye on your condition and tell you how often you should come in for appointments. Go to all of your appointments and follow-ups, and be an active partner in your care. Tell your provider right away about any new or changing symptoms.
Also, take care of your mental health. It’s normal to feel anxious about what the future could bring. You may also feel overwhelmed by the need to make lifestyle changes. But those feelings shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying life. Some tips for managing your thoughts and worries include:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Atherosclerosis is a common condition. So, remember that if you have atherosclerosis, you’re not alone. Many other people are in your shoes. Your healthcare provider is ready to help you manage your condition so you can live a long and healthy life.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/06/2023.
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