Atherosclerosis is an inflammation process in blood vessels due to plaque buildup. Plaque is made of fats, cholesterol, and calcium. Over time, plaque and inflammation can narrow and harden the arteries.
Plaque buildup can slow and even stop blood flow. This can lead to problems such as:
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Plaque can also weaken the walls of arteries. This can lead to a blood clot or aneurysm.
Atherosclerosis is caused by plaque. Plaque is created by high levels of cholesterol and fat in the blood. Scar tissue and calcium from prior injury can also add to plaque buildup.
The risk of having atherosclerosis increases with age. Other things that may raise the risk are:
Early atherosclerosis does not have symptoms. Symptoms may happen as the arteries become harder and narrow. Blockage from a clot can cause sudden symptoms.
Symptoms depend on which arteries are affected. For example:
Most people are diagnosed after they have symptoms. However, people can be screened and treated for risk factors.
The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. Tests depend on which arteries may be involved. Many tests detect problems with blood flow to tissues.
Tests may include:
Lifestyle changes are an important part of treatment (see Prevention below). They help reduce and reverse plaque buildup.
Other treatment depends on the area of the body affected. It may include:
Medicines can help:
These procedures involve passing a thin tube to the diseased artery and repairing it. They include:
To help prevent and reverse atherosclerosis:
American Heart Association
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Canadian Cardiovascular Society
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
Atherosclerosis. American Heart Association website. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cholesterol/about-cholesterol/atherosclerosis#.Wpg9d2rwZQI. Accessed September 15, 2021.
Atherosclerosis. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/atherosclerosis. Accessed September 15, 2021.
Coronary artery disease. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/coronary-artery-disease-cad. Accessed September 15, 2021.
Geovanini GR, Libby P. Atherosclerosis and inflammation: overview and updates. Clin Sci (Lond). 2018;132(12):1243-1252.
Heart and stroke statistics. American Heart Association website. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/about-us/heart-and-stroke-association-statistics. Accessed September 15, 2021.
Last reviewed July 2021 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board
Nicole Meregian, PA
Last Updated: 9/15/2021