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 your heart, legs, 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. If left untreated, atherosclerosis can lead to heart attack, stroke, or heart failure.
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 type of arteriosclerosis, otherwise known as hardening of the arteries. The terms atherosclerosis and arteriosclerosis are sometimes used interchangeably.
Plaque buildup and subsequent hardening of the arteries restricts blood flow in the arteries, preventing your organs and tissues from getting the oxygenated blood they need to function.
The following are common causes of hardening of the arteries:
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.
- a wide range of fruits and vegetables
- whole grains
- low-fat dairy products
- poultry and fish, without skin
- nuts and legumes
- non-tropical vegetable oils, such as olive or sunflower oil
Some other diet tips:
- Avoid foods and drinks with added sugar, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, candy, and desserts. The AHA recommends no more than 6 teaspoons or 100 calories of sugar a day for most women, and no more than 9 teaspoons or 150 calories a day for most men.
- Avoid foods high in salt. Aim to have no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. Ideally, you’d consume no more than 1,500 mg a day.
- Avoid foods high in unhealthy fats, such as trans fats. Replace them with unsaturated fats, which are better for you. If you need to lower your blood cholesterol, reduce saturated fat to no more than 5 to 6 percent of total calories. For someone eating 2,000 calories a day, that’s about 13 grams of saturated fat.
As you age, your heart and blood vessels work harder to pump and receive blood. Your arteries may weaken and become less elastic, making them more susceptible to plaque buildup.
Many factors place you at risk for atherosclerosis. Some risk factors can be modified, while others can’t.
If atherosclerosis runs in your family, you may be at risk for hardening of the arteries. This condition, as well as other heart-related problems, may be inherited.
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.
Living a sedentary lifestyle 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 reduce the flexibility of your arteries over time.
Smoking tobacco products can damage your blood vessels and heart.
Most symptoms of atherosclerosis don’t show up until a blockage occurs. Common symptoms include:
- chest pain or angina
- pain in your leg, arm, and anywhere else that has a blocked artery
- shortness of breath
- confusion, which occurs if the blockage affects circulation to your brain
- muscle weakness in your legs from lack of circulation
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
- 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.
Your doctor will perform a physical exam if you have symptoms of atherosclerosis. They’ll check for:
- a weakened pulse
- an aneurysm, 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 cardiologist may listen to your heart to see if you have any abnormal sounds. They’ll be listening for a whooshing noise, which indicates that an artery is blocked. 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 (ABI), which looks for a blockage in your arms or legs by comparing the blood pressure in each limb
- a magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) or a computed tomography angiography (CTA) to 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 may need to exercise more to improve the health of your heart and blood vessels.
Unless your atherosclerosis is severe, 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:
- cholesterol-lowering medications, including statins and fibrates
- angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, which may help prevent narrowing of your arteries
- beta-blockers or calcium channel blockers to lower your blood pressure
- diuretics, or water pills, to help lower your blood pressure
- anticoagulants and antiplatelet drugs such as aspirin to prevent blood from clotting and clogging your arteries
Aspirin is particularly effective for people with a history of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (e.g., heart attack and stroke). An aspirin regimen can reduce your risk of having another health event.
If there's no prior history of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, you should only use aspirin as a preventive medication if your risk of bleeding is low and your risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease is high.
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, which involves using a catheter and a balloon to expand your artery, sometimes inserting a stent to leave the artery open
- endarterectomy, which involves surgically removing fatty deposits from your artery
- atherectomy, which involves removing plaque from your arteries by using a catheter with a sharp blade at one end
With treatment, you may see improvement in your health, 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.
You should work closely with your doctor to make the appropriate lifestyle changes. You’ll also need to take the proper medications to control your condition and avoid complications.
Atherosclerosis can cause:
It’s also associated with the following diseases:
Coronary artery disease (CAD)
Carotid artery disease
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. Learn more about carotid artery disease.
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.
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 fat and cholesterol
- avoiding fatty foods
- adding fish to your diet twice per week
- getting at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise or 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week
- quitting smoking if you’re a smoker
- losing weight if you’re overweight or obese
- managing stress
- treating conditions associated with atherosclerosis, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes