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 from your heart to your organs. The buildup of atherosclerotic plagues 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. Go to an emergency department and chew on an aspirin tablet if you think you're... read more 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. As with all organs in the body, the brain needs oxygen and nutrients... read more .
Atherosclerosis is more likely in people with high blood pressure High Blood Pressure Each heart beat pushes blood through your arteries. Arteries are the blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to your body. Blood pressure is the pressure of blood in your arteries. Without... read more , diabetes Diabetes Diabetes is a disease in which your blood sugar (glucose) levels are too high. You get diabetes if your body's normal way of controlling blood sugar isn't working right. There are 2 types of... read more , and high cholesterol High Cholesterol Cholesterol is a type of fat. Fats are also called lipids. Cholesterol is a type of lipid—an essential element contained in all human cells. However, excess lipids and other fatty substances... read more , and in people who smoke cigarettes
Often, the first symptom is pain or cramps in the chest or legs
Atherosclerosis is the leading cause of illness and death in the United States
To help prevent atherosclerosis, stop smoking, eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and treat health problems, such as high blood pressure High Blood Pressure Each heart beat pushes blood through your arteries. Arteries are the blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to your body. Blood pressure is the pressure of blood in your arteries. Without... read more , diabetes Diabetes Diabetes is a disease in which your blood sugar (glucose) levels are too high. You get diabetes if your body's normal way of controlling blood sugar isn't working right. There are 2 types of... read more , and high cholesterol High Cholesterol Cholesterol is a type of fat. Fats are also called lipids. Cholesterol is a type of lipid—an essential element contained in all human cells. However, excess lipids and other fatty substances... read more
What causes atherosclerosis?
Atherosclerosis starts with repeated, small injuries to the lining of your arteries. The injuries can be caused by:
Certain infections from bacteria or viruses
After your artery's lining is damaged, white blood cells attach to your artery and collect fatty cells and cholesterol. The cells and cholesterol build up to form hard clumps called plaques (atheromas). As the plaques get bigger, they start to block blood flow.
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:
Being overweight, especially in your belly
Eating too much saturated fat, such as butter, and not enough fruits and vegetables
These are important risk factors you can't control:
Having close relatives with atherosclerosis
Being a man
What are the symptoms of atherosclerosis?
Early atherosclerosis has no symptoms. After many years, symptoms depend on:
Where the blocked artery is located
Whether the artery 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:
Gangrene of a toe, foot, or leg (blocked artery to the leg)
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:
Electrocardiogram (ECG/EKG) Electrocardiography Electrocardiography is a test that measures your heart’s electrical activity. It's quick, painless, and harmless. The results of that test are shown in an electrocardiogram. It looks like a... read more —a test that measures your heart’s electrical activity
Ultrasonography Ultrasonography Ultrasonography is a safe imaging test that uses sound waves to create a moving picture of the insides of your body. Ultrasonography doesn't use radiation (x-rays). Ultrasonography is also called... read more —a test (also called an ultrasound) that uses sound waves to create a moving picture of the insides of your body and your blood vessels
Stress test Stress Testing A stress test lets doctors see how your heart works when it’s under stress, such as when you exercise. Many heart problems are easier for your doctor to find when your heart is working hard... read more —doctors see how your heart works when it’s under stress, such as when you exercise
Cardiac catheterization Cardiac Catheterization Cardiac catheterization (also called cardiac cath) is a heart procedure done in a hospital. The doctor puts a thin plastic tube (catheter) through an artery and into your heart. Doctors get... read more —doctors thread a catheter (small flexible tube) into your body and up to your heart
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:
Eat a healthy diet
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 a medicine called a statin and sometimes aspirin.
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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