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Quick Facts

Atherosclerosis

By

The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Jul 2021| Content last modified Jul 2021
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What is atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is known as hardening of the arteries. It's caused by a fat-like buildup (called atheromas or plaques) inside your arteries. Arteries are blood vessels that carry blood to your organs. The buildup slowly blocks the flow of blood through your arteries. Atherosclerosis is the most common cause of heart attacks Heart Attack A heart attack is when blood flow to part of your heart is suddenly blocked and some of your heart muscle dies. Doctors use the term myocardial infarction to refer to a heart attack. Myocardium... read more Heart Attack and strokes Stroke A stroke is a sudden brain problem that happens when a blood vessel in your brain either gets blocked or breaks open and bleeds. Part of your brain stops getting blood. Brain tissue that doesn't... read more .

What causes atherosclerosis?

What increases the risk of atherosclerosis?

There are many risk factors for atherosclerosis. You can do things to deal with some risk factors. Other risk factors are out of your control.

Risk factors you can control or avoid include:

These are important risk factors you can't control:

  • Having close relatives with atherosclerosis

  • Being a man

  • Growing older

What are the symptoms of atherosclerosis?

Early atherosclerosis has no symptoms. After many years, symptoms depend on:

  • Where the blocked artery is located

  • Whether it slowly narrows or is suddenly blocked

If arteries slowly narrow, the first symptom is usually pain or cramps, such as chest pain during exercise or leg cramps while walking.

If arteries are suddenly blocked, you may have:

How can doctors tell if I have atherosclerosis?

If you have symptoms that suggest a blocked artery, doctors will do tests to look for the location and size of the blockage. Doctors do different tests depending on where the artery is. Tests may include:

If you have atherosclerosis, doctors will do blood tests to look for what caused it.

How do doctors treat and prevent atherosclerosis?

Changes to your lifestyle and taking medicines may stop the fatty build-up from growing or from having new blockages form.

You can lower your risk factors:

  • Stop smoking

  • Eat a healthy diet

  • Exercise

  • Take your medicines to lower cholesterol and blood pressure and control diabetes, as directed by your doctors

If you're likely to get atherosclerosis, your doctor may have you take aspirin and a medicine called a statin.

If changes to your lifestyle and taking medicines don't help, doctors may have to do surgery. The surgery is done to remove the blockage or redirect blood flow around the blockage.

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