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What Is Atherosclerosis? Learn More Here

    What Is Atherosclerosis? Learn More Here

    What is atherosclerosis? It is the hardening and narrowing of the arteries caused by cholesterol plaques lining the artery over time. This condition endangers blood flow and overall heart health.

    Heart attacks, strokes, and peripheral vascular disease—collectively known as cardiovascular disease—are typically caused by arteriosclerosis or atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. However, you can stop and reverse this process.

    What is Atherosclerosis?

    The arteries in your body are the blood vessels that transport blood from your heart to every part of your body. The endothelium, a thin layer of cells that lines the interior of your arteries, keeps them smooth and in good condition so that blood can flow through them.

    Atherosclerosis is a very complex disease with numerous mechanisms and its common causes include:

    • Elevated cholesterol
    • High blood pressure
    • Inflammation, as that caused by lupus or arthritis
    • Diabetes or obesity
    • Smoking
    • Plaque accumulates on the artery walls as a result of that injury
    • Bad cholesterol, or LDL, enters the wall of your artery when it passes a damaged endothelium. Your white blood cells rush in to break down the LDL. Over time, the cholesterol and cells build into plaque in the wall of your artery.

    As atherosclerosis worsens, plaque causes a lump on your arterial wall. When that mound grows large enough, it might cause a blockage. Your entire body is affected by that process, putting your risk of stroke and other illnesses in addition to heart disease.

    Previously, atherosclerosis typically doesn’t manifest until you’re in your middle age years or later. But now, doctors see young adults having atherosclerosis due to their lifestyle. As the narrowing of your arteries worsens, atherosclerosis can cut off blood flow and create pain. Blockages can also suddenly rupture, which results in a blood clot at the location of the rupture in the artery.

    What Signs and Symptoms Accompany Atherosclerosis?

    Depending on which artery is narrowed or obstructed, symptoms may not appear until the artery is nearly closed or until a heart attack or stroke. Common signs and symptoms of atherosclerosis include: chest pain, palpitations, pain when walking (claudication), burning or prickling sensation, numbness, and abdominal pain.

    Arrhythmia, an odd heartbeat, angina, or pain or pressure in the upper body, such as the chest, arms, neck, or jaw, are all signs that your coronary arteries need to be examined.

    The arteries that provide blood to your brain might cause shortness of breath, numbness or weakness in your arms or legs, difficulty speaking or understanding others, drooping facial muscles, paralysis, severe headaches, and trouble seeing in one or both eyes. Leg pain when walking and numbness are signs that your arms, legs, and pelvis’ arteries are damaged.

    What are Atherosclerosis Risk Factors?

    Young people can develop atherosclerosis, and studies have shown that even teenagers can show symptoms.

    The risk increases with age, most persons over 60 have some atherosclerosis, but most don’t have obvious symptoms. If you are in generally good condition at age 40, you have a 50% chance of developing significant atherosclerosis in your lifetime.

    Over 90% of heart attacks are caused by these risk factors:

    • Abdominal fat
    • Diabetes
    • Excessive alcohol use (more than one drink for women, one or two drinks for men, per day)
    • Blood pressure is high
    • Elevated cholesterol
    • Not eating enough fruits and veggies
    • Not consistently working out
    • Smoking
    • Stress

    Because of improved lifestyles and therapies, atherosclerosis death rates have decreased by 25% over the last three decades.

    Atherosclerosis and Cardiovascular Disease

    The three primary types of cardiovascular disease are brought on by the plaques of atherosclerosis:

    • Stable plaques in your heart’s arteries can cause angina (chest pain). A heart attack occurs when a sudden plaque ruptures and a blood clot affects your heart muscle.
    • Cerebrovascular disease: Transient ischemic attacks (tias), which are stroke warning signals but may not result in any brain damage, can also be caused by temporary arterial blockages. Strokes caused by burst plaques in your brain’s arteries have the potential to cause lasting brain damage.
    • Peripheral artery disease: If the arteries in your legs become narrow, it can cause poor circulation, which makes it painful to walk and wounds on the leg and foot take longer to heal. If the disease is severe, a limb may need to be amputated.

    How is Atherosclerosis Managed/ Treated?

    Once you have a blockage, it usually won’t go away. But you can slow or stop plaques with medicine and lifestyle changes. With vigorous therapy, plaque might even slightly contract.

    Lifestyle modifications

    By addressing the risk factors, such as a good diet, regular exercise, and quitting smoking, you can slow or stop atherosclerosis. While these adjustments won’t dissolve blockages, they have been shown to reduce the incidence of heart attacks and strokes.


    Drugs for high cholesterol and high blood pressure will reduce and possibly even stop the development of atherosclerosis, lowering your risk of heart attack and stroke.


    Your doctor may employ less invasive methods or more invasive ones to bypass atherosclerotic blockages:

    • Stenting helps relieve symptoms but does not prevent heart attacks. In angiography and stenting, your doctor inserts a small tube into an artery in your leg or arm to access damaged arteries. Blockages are seen on a live x-ray screen.
    • In a bypass procedure, a healthy blood artery, frequently one from your leg or chest, is used to circumvent a blocked segment.
    • Endarterectomy: To remove plaque and improve blood flow, your doctor enters the neck arteries. For higher-risk individuals, they may additionally install a stent.
    • Mediation may be prescribed to breakdown a blood clot that is obstructing your artery.

    Your physician will go over the risks associated with these procedures with you,

    Key Takeaways

    Atherosclerosis is the thickening or hardening of the arteries caused by a buildup of plaque in the inner lining of an artery.

    Risk factors may include high cholesterol and triglyceride levels, high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, obesity, physical activity, and poor diet.

    Bits of plaque can break loose and cause blood clots that may lead to heart attack or stroke. There is currently no cure for atherosclerosis, but the condition can be slowed with certain drugs and dietary changes. Consult your doctor for the best treatment plan.

    Learn more about Atherosclerosis here.


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    High prevalence of coronary atherosclerosis in asymptomatic teenagers and young adults: evidence from intravascular ultrasound, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11390341/, Accessed September 6, 2022

    Lifetime risk of developing coronary heart disease, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10023892/, Accessed September 6, 2022

    The Effect of Pravastatin on Coronary Events after Myocardial Infarction in Patients with Average Cholesterol Levels, https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejm199610033351401, Accessed September 6, 2022

    Atherosclerosis symptoms https://stanfordhealthcare.org/medical-conditions/blood-heart-circulation/atherosclerosis/symptoms.html Accessed September 6, 2022

    Clinical signs of atherosclerosis https://www.researchgate.net/publication/299442416_Clinical_signs_of_atherosclerosis Accessed September 6, 2022

    Atherosclerosis https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/atherosclerosis Accessed September 6, 2022

    Atherosclerosis Symptoms and Treatment https://www.health.harvard.edu/cholesterol/atherosclerosis-symptoms-and-treatments Accessed September 6, 2022

    Atherosclerosis https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/atherosclerosis/ Accessed September 6, 2022

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    Written by Hello Doctor Medical Panel Updated 2 weeks agoMedically reviewed by Lauren Labrador, MD, FPCP, DPCC
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