Atherosclerosis is a condition in which fatty material collects along the walls of arteries. This fatty material thickens, hardens, and may eventually block the arteries.
Atherosclerosis is a type of arteriosclerosis. The two terms are often used to mean the same thing.
Alternative NamesArteriosclerosis; Hardening of the arteries; Plaque buildup - arteries
Atherosclerosis is a common disorder of the arteries. It occurs when fat, cholesterol, and other substances build up in the walls of arteries and form hard substances called plaque.
Eventually, the plaque deposits can make the artery narrow and less flexible. This makes it harder for blood to flow. If the coronary arteries become narrow, blood flow to the heart can slow down or stop, causing chest pain (stable angina), shortness of breath, heart attack, and other symptoms.
Pieces of plaque can break apart and move through the bloodstream. This is a common cause of heart attack and stroke. Blood clots can also form around the plaque deposits. Clots block blood flow. If the clot moves into the heart, lungs, or brain, it can cause a stroke, heart attack, or pulmonary embolism.
Risk factors for atherosclerosis include:
The following conditions have also been linked to atherosclerosis:
Symptoms usually do not occur until blood flow becomes slowed or blocked. If this happens, you may have chest pain or leg pain, depending on which artery is involved. Sometimes symptoms occur only with activity.
Exams and Tests
A health care provider will perform a physical exam and listen to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope. Early atherosclerosis can create a whooshing or blowing sound ("bruit") over an artery.
Tests that may be used to diagnose atherosclerosis or complications include:
- Ankle/brachial index (ABI)
- Cardiac stress testing
- CT scan
- Doppler study
- Intravascular ultrasound (IVUS)
- Magnetic resonance arteriography (MRA)
Your doctor will probably suggest a low-fat diet, weight loss if you are overweight, and exercise.
There are many different medicines used to treat atherosclerosis. Blood thinners may be given to prevent clot formation. Medications may be also recommended to lower cholesterol and to keep your blood pressure at a healthy level.
Atherosclerosis can lead to coronary heart disease (CHD). If you have CHD that does not cause symptoms, you can be treated with either medicine or angioplasty with stenting. Recent studies show that medicine and angioplasty with stenting have equal benefits. Angioplasty with stenting does not help you live longer, but it can reduce angina or other symptoms of coronary artery disease.
Angioplasty with stenting, however, can be a life-saving procedure if you are having a heart attack
Some people may need a procedure called an endarterectomy to remove plaque build up.
- Coronary artery bypass surgery
- Minimally invasive heart surgery
Everyone starts to develop some amount of atherosclerosis as they grow older. In some people, the condition can cause complications such as a heart attack or stroke.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if you are at risk for atherosclerosis, especially if symptoms occur.
Talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise plan, especially if you have been diagnosed with coronary artery disease or if you have ever had a heart attack.
The following lifestyle changes can help prevent atherosclerosis:
- Eat a low-fat, low-cholesterol, and low-salt diet.
- Eat fish. Adding fish to the diet at least twice a week has been shown to be helpful. Do not fry the fish, as this destroys the benefit.
- If you don't like to eat fish, try a fish oil supplement.
- Exercise 30 minutes every day. If you are overweight, you should get 60 to 90 minutes of exercise a day.
- Lose weight if you are overweight.
- Stop smoking.
- Mild to moderate consumption of alcohol or wine (1-2 drinks per day) may also reduce the risk of cardiovascular events. Too much alcohol, however, does more harm than good.
- If you have one or more risk factors for heart attack or stroke, ask your doctor if you should take aspirin every day. Aspirin can help some people reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Work with your doctor to bring the blood pressure into the normal range. This may require medication. Follow your doctor's recommendations for treatment and control of diabetes and other diseases.
Do not take hormonal replacement therapy, folic acid supplements, vitamin C or E, or antioxidants to decrease the risk of heart disease or stroke. These methods have not been proven to prevent these conditions.
Boden WE, O'rourke RA, Teo KK, et al. Optimal Medical Therapy with or without PCI for Stable Coronary Disease. N Engl J Med. 2007 Mar 26; [Epub ahead of print].
Mosca L, Banka CL, Benjamin EJ, et al. Evidence-Based Guidelines for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention in Women: 2007 Update. Circulation. 2007; Published online before print February 19, 2007.
Zipes DP, Libby P, Bonow RO, Braunwald E, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine, 7th ed. St. Louis, Mo: WB Saunders; 2005:921-935.