Atherosclerosis is a narrowing of the arteries caused by a buildup of plaque. Arteries are the blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients from your heart to the rest of your body.

As you get older, fats, cholesterol, and calcium can collect in your arteries and form plaque. The buildup of plaque makes it difficult for blood to flow through your arteries. This buildup may occur in any artery in your body, including around your heart, legs, brain, and kidneys.

It can result in a shortage of blood and oxygen in various tissues of your body. Pieces of plaque can also break off, causing a blood clot. Without treatment, atherosclerosis can lead to heart attack, stroke, or heart failure, among other conditions.

Atherosclerosis is a fairly common problem associated with aging. This condition can be prevented and many successful treatment options exist.

Did you know?

Atherosclerosis is a form of arteriosclerosis, otherwise known as hardening of the arteries. The terms “atherosclerosis” and “arteriosclerosis” are sometimes used interchangeably, but they represent slightly different conditions.

Most symptoms of atherosclerosis don’t show up until a blockage occurs. Common symptoms include:

It’s also important to know the symptoms of heart attack and stroke. Both of these can be caused by atherosclerosis and require immediate medical attention.

The symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • chest pain or discomfort
  • pain in the shoulders, back, neck, arms, and jaw
  • abdominal pain
  • shortness of breath
  • sweating
  • lightheadedness
  • nausea or vomiting
  • a sense of impending doom

The symptoms of stroke include:

  • weakness or numbness in the face or limbs
  • trouble speaking
  • trouble understanding speech
  • vision problems
  • loss of balance
  • sudden, severe headache

Heart attack and stroke are both medical emergencies. Call 911 or your local emergency services and get to a hospital’s emergency room as soon as possible if you experience symptoms of a heart attack or stroke.

When plaque builds up and the arteries become hard and inflamed, blood has trouble flowing through them to the rest of the body. This prevents 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

Cholesterol is a waxy, yellow substance that’s found naturally in the body as well as in certain foods you eat.

If the levels of cholesterol in your blood are too high, it can clog your arteries. It becomes a hard plaque that restricts or blocks blood circulation to your heart and other organs.


It’s important to eat a healthy diet. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that you follow an overall healthy dietary pattern that stresses:

Some other diet tips:


As you age, your heart and blood vessels work harder to pump and receive blood. Your arteries may stiffen and become less elastic, making them more susceptible to plaque buildup.

Your doctor will perform a physical exam if you have symptoms of atherosclerosis. They’ll check for:

  • a weakened pulse
  • an aneurysm, or an abnormal bulging or widening of an artery due to weakness of the arterial wall
  • slow wound healing, which indicates a restricted blood flow
  • a bruit, or whooshing sound the blood makes as it travels through the blocked artery

A cardiologist may listen to your heart to see if you have any atypical sounds. Your doctor will order more tests if they think you may have atherosclerosis.

Tests can include:

  • a blood test to check your cholesterol levels
  • a Doppler ultrasound, which uses sound waves to create a picture of the artery that shows if there’s a blockage
  • an ankle-brachial index, which looks for a blockage in your arms or legs by comparing the blood pressure in each limb
  • a magnetic resonance angiography or a computed tomography angiography, which create pictures of the large arteries in your body
  • a cardiac angiogram, which is a type of chest X-ray that’s taken after your heart arteries are injected with radioactive dye
  • an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), which measures the electrical activity in your heart to look for any areas of decreased blood flow
  • a stress test, or exercise tolerance test, which monitors your heart rate and blood pressure while you exercise on a treadmill or stationary bicycle

Treatment involves changing your current lifestyle to decrease the amount of fat and cholesterol you consume. You can exercise more to improve the health of your heart and blood vessels.

Your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes as the first line of treatment. You may also need additional medical treatments, such as medications or surgery.


Medications can help prevent atherosclerosis from worsening.

Medications for treating atherosclerosis include:

Aspirin can be particularly effective for people with a history of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke. An aspirin regimen discussed with your doctor may potentially lower your risk of having another health event if you already have atherosclerosis.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently released updated guidelines on using aspirin for the prevention of cardiovascular disease. These guidelines may be relevant in discussions with your doctor.

If you have no history of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, only use aspirin as a preventive medication if your risk of bleeding is low and your risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease is high. Always discuss an aspirin regimen with your doctor first.


If symptoms are especially severe or if muscle or skin tissue are endangered, surgery may be necessary.

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 and percutaneous coronary intervention, which involves using a catheter and a balloon to expand your artery, sometimes inserting a stent to keep the artery open
  • atherectomy, which involves removing plaque from your arteries by using a catheter with a sharp blade at one end
  • endarterectomy, which involves surgically removing fatty deposits from your artery

Many factors place you at risk for atherosclerosis. Some risk factors can be modified, while others can’t.

Family history

If atherosclerosis runs in your family, you may be at risk for hardening of the arteries. You can inherit this condition, as well as other heart-related problems.

Lack of exercise

Regular exercise is good for your heart. It keeps your heart muscle strong and encourages oxygen and blood flow throughout your body.

Lack of exercise increases your risk for a host of medical conditions, including heart disease.

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 lower the flexibility of your arteries over time.


Smoking tobacco products can damage your blood vessels and heart.


People with diabetes have a much higher incidence of coronary artery disease.

Atherosclerosis can cause:

It also results in the following diseases:

Coronary artery disease (CAD)

The coronary arteries are blood vessels that provide your heart’s muscle tissue with oxygen and blood. CAD occurs when the coronary arteries become hard.

Carotid artery disease

The carotid arteries are found in your neck and supply blood to your brain.

These arteries may be compromised if plaque builds up in their walls. The lack of circulation may reduce how much blood and oxygen reaches your brain’s tissue and cells.

Peripheral artery disease

Your legs, arms, and lower body depend on your arteries to supply blood and oxygen to their tissues. Hardened arteries can cause circulation problems in these areas of the body.

Kidney disease

The renal arteries supply blood to your kidneys. Kidneys filter waste products and extra water from your blood.

Atherosclerosis of these arteries may lead to kidney failure.

Lifestyle changes can help to prevent as well as treat atherosclerosis, especially for people with type 2 diabetes.

Helpful lifestyle changes include:

  • eating a healthy diet that’s low in saturated fats and cholesterol
  • avoiding fatty foods
  • adding fish to your diet twice per week instead of red meat
  • getting at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise or 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week
  • quitting smoking if you’re a smoker
  • maintaining a moderate and healthy-for-you weight
  • managing stress
  • treating conditions associated with atherosclerosis, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, obesity, and diabetes

You may see improvement in your health with treatment, but this may take time. The success of your treatment will depend on:

  • the severity of your condition
  • how promptly it was treated
  • whether other organs were affected

Hardening of the arteries can’t be reversed. However, treating the underlying cause and making healthy lifestyle and dietary changes can help slow down the process or prevent it from getting worse.

Work closely with your doctor to make the appropriate lifestyle changes. They’ll help you find the proper medications to control your condition and avoid complications.