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What to know about atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis occurs when a plaque buildup along the artery wall causes the arteries to become narrow and hard.

Other disorders include arteriosclerosis, and artery hardening.

The plaque that triggers atherosclerosis is made up of cholesterol, calcium, fat, and other substances, and over time it may be harder.

Changes in a person’s arteries interfere with blood flow across the body and raise the risk of complications, such as heart attack or stroke. These complications are potentially life threatening.

What is atherosclerosis?

A person with atherosclerosis may experience difficulty breathing and weakness.
A person with atherosclerosis may experience difficulty breathing and weakness.

Atherosclerosis is artery narrowing due to plaque accumulation on the walls of the arteries.

Arteries bring blood into the rest of the body from the heart. A thin layer of cells forms a lining which keeps them smooth and allows for easy flow of blood. It is the Endothelium.

Atherosclerosis occurs when the endothelium is weakened due to factors like smoking , high blood pressure or elevated blood glucose, fat and cholesterol levels.

This damage causes the building up of a collection of substances in the artery wall, known as plaque. Both include cholesterol and fat.

Over time, plaque can build up and become hard.

If plaque continues to accumulate it may block the artery and interfere with blood flow across the body.

Sometimes, pieces of plaque break open. If this occurs, particles from blood cells collect in the affected area, known as platelets. This can bind together to form clots in the blood.

A clot can obstruct the artery, leading to life-threatening complications such as heart attack and stroke.

Atherosclerosis may affect any artery, but occurs especially in larger, high-pressure arteries.


Atherosclerosis typically affects older people but during puberty it can begin to develop. Streaks of white blood cells may appear on the wall of the artery inside the artery.

Sometimes there are no signs until a bit of plaque breaks, or the blood flow is reduced. It will take several years for that to happen.

The symptoms of atherosclerosis depend on the type of artery affected.

Carotid arteries

Carotid arteries provide blood supply to the brain. Restricted supply of blood may cause a stroke.

Stroke symptoms can all of a sudden appear and include:

  • weakness
  • difficulty breathing
  • headache
  • facial numbness
  • paralysis

If a person has signs of a stroke, they need immediate medical attention.

Coronary arteries

Coronary arteries make blood available to the heart. When the supply of blood to the heart falls, it can cause angina and heart attack.

A person may experience:

  • chest pain
  • vomiting
  • extreme anxiety
  • coughing
  • faintness

Learn more about coronary artery disease here.

Renal arteries

Renal arteries deliver blood to the kidneys. If blood supply becomes limited, may develop chronic kidney disease.

Anyone with blockage of the renal artery significant enough to cause chronic kidney disease may experience:

  • loss of appetite
  • swelling of the hands and feet
  • difficulty concentrating

Peripheral arteries

These arteries provide the arms , legs, and pelvis with blood.

An individual can feel numbness and pain in his limbs if blood can not circulate effectively. Tissue death and gangrene can happen in extreme cases.

Peripheral artery disease also raises the risk of a heart attack or stroke.


Atherosclerosis can be life-threatening but there is treatment. Treatment early will reduce the risk of serious complications.

Treatment aims at slowing or stopping plaque growth, preventing the formation of blood clots and treating the symptoms.

Options include:

  • lifestyle changes
  • medications
  • surgery

Lifestyle changes

Research shows that the following lifestyle choices might reduce the risk:

  • avoiding or quitting smoking
  • consuming alcohol in moderation
  • getting regular exercise
  • following a healthful diet
  • maintaining a healthy weight

Adopting these practices from early adulthood may help prevent problems later in life.


A doctor may prescribe medicines to fit the needs of a person, based on his overall health and other conditions.

Drugs called statins can help control cholesterol levels in a person.

Other medicines can reduce blood pressure , reduce sugar in the blood and avoid clots and inflammation.

People should follow orders from their doctor, without obtaining medical advice, and not discontinue a prescription. They should also follow a safe lifestyle, and use medicine.


Often a person may require surgery to ensure that blood flows properly through his or her arteries.

Options include:

  • using a stent to widen the blood vessel
  • bypass surgery to carry blood around the affected area
  • surgery to remove plaque buildup, for example, in the neck

These options may help a person with severe atherosclerosis.


The complications of atherosclerosis include:

  • heart disease, heart attack, or heart failure
  • peripheral artery disease
  • kidney failure
  • aneurysm
  • stroke
  • irregular heart rhythms and palpitations
  • embolism when a piece of the clot breaks off and travels to another part of the bloodstream

Risk factors

People with a higher risk of atherosclerosis include those with:

  • diabetes or insulin resistance
  • a family history of cardiovascular disease
  • a history of tobacco smoking
  • high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol
  • low physical activity levels
  • older age
  • a diet high in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, salt, and sugar
  • high blood pressure
  • obesity
  • high levels of triglycerides in the blood
  • stress
  • high alcohol intake
  • sleep apnea

Recent evidence suggests inflammation may play a role. Research indicates air pollution by causing inflammation may increase the risk.


Atherosclerosis is a serious condition which could have life-threatening results. It may affect people of any age but it is more likely that symptoms will occur as people get older.

Following a healthy lifestyle from an early age is one way to reduce the risk of atherosclerosis. A doctor will inform people with atherosclerosis about medication and lifestyle decisions to minimize the risk of complications.