What is Atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is the hardening and/or narrowing of the arteries due to the buildup of plaque. Plaque consists of fatty substances, cholesterol, calcium, cellular waste products and other substances, and can build up in the inner lining of the arteries. Atherosclerosis is a very slow, progressive condition, that can start in childhood and leads to heart disease and other complications.

Understanding the Heart

Symptoms of Atherosclerosis

There are no symptoms of atherosclerosis until it causes other complications. Then symptoms would be indicative of where the hardening of the arteries is occurring, and symptoms would be related to the associated condition:

  • Coronary artery disease – Coronary artery disease develops when atherosclerosis affects the arteries in the heart.
  • Stroke – A stroke occurs when the arteries in the brain harden.
  • Peripheral arterial disease – Peripheral arterial disease develops when the arteries in the arms, legs or pelvis are affected.
  • Renovascular hypertension – This condition develops when atherosclerosis affects the arteries in the kidneys.

Risk Factors of Atherosclerosis

There are several risk factors that contribute to the development of atherosclerosis, some which can be controlled, and some that cannot. Risk factors include:

Causes of Atherosclerosis

The arteries provide oxygen-rich blood to the heart, brain, and other parts of the body. The inner lining of the arteries is called the endothelium. This inner lining can be injured due to high cholesterol levels, high triglycerides, high blood pressure, smoking and/or diabetes. When the endothelium is damaged, substances that flow through the arteries, such as fats, cholesterol, calcium, cellular waste products and other substances (collectively known as plaque), are deposited in the artery wall, and over time begin to build up. The build up of these substances causes the arteries to harden, narrow or become blocked. Depending on where the hardening or blockage occurs, other complications then follow.

Diagnosing Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis is usually diagnosed after other complications have arisen and another conditions has been diagnosed, such as coronary artery disease. To determine the cause of your symptoms, your doctor will review your symptoms, review your medical and family medical history, and complete a physical exam. If your doctor suspects atherosclerosis, other tests may be prescribed as well, including:

  • Blood tests – screening for cholesterol levels and blood glucose levels
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG) – measures rate and regularity of heartbeat
  • Stress EKG or Stress Test – EKG performed while patient is performing moderate exercise, such as jogging or riding a stationary bike
  • Chest x-ray – allows doctor to see a picture of your heart and other potentially affected organs
  • Ultrasound – provides more detailed picture than x-ray
  • CT scan – provides a computer-generated picture of affected organs
  • Angiography – minor catheter-type procedure that allows doctor to examine the inside of the arteries for damage or blockage

Treatment Options

Atherosclerosis and the related complications can be treated and controlled in a variety of ways. Most patients require treatment combining lifestyle changes and medication, but some may require surgery.

Lifestyle Changes

The following is suggested for treating as well as preventing atherosclerosis:

  • Eat healthy – Stick to a heart-healthy low fat, low sodium, low cholesterol diet.
  • Quit smoking – Stop using all tobacco products
  • Exercise – Moderate, daily exercise provides great benefits.
  • Lose weight – If you are considered overweight or obese, talk with your doctor about the best way for you to shed the extra weight.


Medication may be necessary to slow or reverse atherosclerosis, or to treat the contributing conditions. The most effective medications will lower cholesterol or blood pressure or prevent blood clots.

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