What is atherosclerosis, what causes it, symptoms and treatment

What is atherosclerosis, what causes it, symptoms and treatment


Atherosclerosis is a disease in which the arteries are narrowed due to a buildup of plaque. Arteries are the blood vessels that deliver oxygen and other important nutrients from your heart to the tissues of your body.

As you get older, cholesterol, fats, and calcium can collect in your arteries and form plaque. It is difficult for blood to flow through your arteries because of the buildup of plaque. This buildup can happen in any artery in your body such as your legs, kidneys and heart.

As a result, various tissues of your body may be short of blood and oxygen, and pieces of plaque may break off and cause a blood clot. If left untreated atherosclerosis can lead to heart failure, heart attack, or stroke.

Atherosclerosis represents a common problem linked with aging. There are many treatment options to successfully prevent this condition.

Did you know?

Atherosclerosis is a type of arteriosclerosis which basically means hardening of the arteries. The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably.

What causes atherosclerosis?

Due to plaque buildup, arteries are getting harder and blood flow is restricted, which prevents your tissues and organs to get the oxygen-rich blood they need to function.

The hardening of the arteries is caused by:

High cholesterol

Cholesterol is a yellow, waxy substance found in the body and in some foods you eat.
Your arteries may be clogged if the levels of cholesterol in your blood are too high. It becomes a hard plaque that blocks the circulation of blood to your heart and other organs.


Maintaining a healthy diet is very important. The American Heart Association (AHA) advises that you follow a certain diet plan that includes:

  • Dairy products low in fat
  • Whole grains
  • Skinned fish and poultry
  • A wide range of fruits and vegetables
  • Nuts and legumes
  • Non-tropical vegetable oils, like sunflower oil or regular oil.

Some other diet tips:

Avoid foods and beverages with added sugar, like candy, sugar-sweetened drinks, and desserts. The AHA recommends that women shouldn’t have more than 6 teaspoons or 100 calories of sugar a day, and men shouldn’t have more than 9 teaspoons or 150 calories a day.

  • Avoid high-sodium foods. It is advisable to have maximum around 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. It would be ideally to consume no more than 1,500 mg a day
  • Avoid foods high in unhealthy fats like trans fats, and consider a better option like unsaturated fats. You may have to reduce saturated fat to no more than 5 to 6 percent of total calories if you want to lower your blood cholesterol. For someone who consumes around 2,000 calories a day, that’s 13 grams of saturated fat.


Your heart and blood vessels have to work harder in order to pump and receive blood as you age. Your arteries may become weaker and less elastic, and as a result – more susceptible to plaque buildup.

Who’s at risk for atherosclerosis?

There are various factors that put you at risk for atherosclerosis. Some risk factors can be modified, while others cannot be modified.

Family history

If your family members have atherosclerosis, chances are you may be at risk for hardening of the arteries. Certain heart-related problems, including this condition, may be inherited.

Lack of exercise

Exercising regularly is good for your heart. It keeps your heart muscle strong and encourages oxygen-rich blood to flow throughout your body.

If you don’t exercise often, and spend a lot of time seated and inactive, the risk of a medical condition such as a heart disease is increased.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure can damage your blood vessels by weakening them in some areas. The flexibility of your arteries may also be compromised over time, if you have cholesterol or other substances in your blood.


Smoking tobacco products can damage your heart and blood vessels.


People who have diabetes also have a higher incidence of coronary artery disease (CAD).

What are some of the symptoms of atherosclerosis?

Most of the symptoms of atherosclerosis won’t show up until a blockage happens. Some of the most common symptoms are:

  • Angina or chest pain
  • Pain in your arm, leg, and anywhere else that has a blocked artery
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion, which happens if the blockage affects blood circulation to your brain
  • Muscle weakness in your legs from lack of circulation

It is very important to recognize the symptoms of stroke and heart attack. Both can be caused by atherosclerosis and require immediate medical attention.

The symptoms of a heart attack are the following:

  • Discomfort or chest pain
  • Pain in the back, neck, jaw, shoulders and arms
  • Shortness of breath
  • Perspiration
  • Abdominal pain
  • Lightheadedness
  • A sense of impending doom
  • Nausea or vomiting

The symptoms of a stroke are the following:

  • Trouble to speak
  • Trouble to understand speech
  • Loss of balance
  • Weakness or numbness in the face or limbs
  • Problems with vision
  • Sudden, severe headache

Stroke and heart attack are both medical emergencies, and if you experience symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, immediately call 911 or your local emergency services in order to get to a hospital’s emergency room as soon as possible.

How is atherosclerosis diagnosed?

If you have symptoms of atherosclerosis, your doctor will perform a physical exam and will check for:

  • Slow healing of wounds, which means that blood flow is restricted
  • A weakened pulse
  • An aneurysm, an abnormal widening or bulging of an artery due to weakness of the arterial wall

A cardiologist can check out for any abnormal sounds by listening to your heart. If they hear a whooshing noise, it means that an artery is blocked. Your doctor will certainly order more tests if they think you have atherosclerosis.

The tests may include:

  • A blood test to check your cholesterol levels
  • A Doppler ultrasound, which uses sound waves in order to create a picture of the artery that shows if there are any blockages
  • An ankle-brachial index (ABI), which looks for a blockage in your legs or arms by comparing the blood pressure in each limb
  • A stress test, or exercise tolerance test, which monitors your blood pressure and heart rate while you exercise on a stationary bicycle or treadmill
  • An electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), which measures your heart’s electrical activity in order to look for any areas of decreased blood flow
  • A cardiac angiogram, which is a type of chest X-ray that’s taken after radioactive dye is injected in your heart arteries
  • A magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) or a computed tomography angiography (CTA) to create pictures of the large arteries in your body

How can atherosclerosis be treated?

Treatment involves decreasing the amount of cholesterol and fat you consume, along with making some lifestyle changes. In order to improve the health of your blood vessels and heart, you should also exercise more regularly.

Your doctor may recommend you to make some lifestyle changes if your cholesterol is not severe. You can also need medications or surgery as additional medical treatments.


Taking medicine can prevent your atherosclerosis from worsening.

Medications for treating atherosclerosis include:

  • Statins and fibrates are medications that can lower your cholesterol
  • Calcium channel blockers or beta-blockers to lower your blood pressure
  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors are capable of preventing the narrowing of your arteries
  • Diuretics or water pills can help to lower your blood pressure
  • Anticoagulants and antiplatelet drugs like aspirin can prevent blood from clogging and clotting your arteries

If you have a history of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (e.g., stroke and heart attack) aspirin can be particularly effective. An aspirin regimen can lower your risk of having another health issue.

If you don’t have a history of atherosclerosis, it is advisable to use aspirin as a preventive medication if your risk of atherosclerosis is high and our risk of bleeding is low.


Surgery may be necessary if your skin or muscle is endangered or your symptoms are severe.

Types of surgeries you may need to treat atherosclerosis include:

  • Bypass surgery, which means that a vessel from somewhere else will have to be used in your body, or a synthetic tube in order to divert blood around your narrowed or blocked artery
  • Angioplasty involves a catheter and a balloon to expand your artery, or in some cases, stent has to be inserted to leave the artery open
  • Thrombolyc therapy, which means that a drug into your affected artery has to be injected in order to dissolve a blood clot
  • Atherectomy involves removing plaque from your artheries by using a catheter with a sharp blade at one end
  • Endarterectomy means that your fatty deposits have to be surgically removed from your artery

What to expect in the long run?

With time, you may see improvement in your health after you receive treatment. The success of your treatment will depend on:

  • How severe is your condition
  • Whether other organs were affected
  • How promptly it was treated

It is not possible to reverse the hardening of the arteries. However, treating the underlying cause and making dietary and lifestyle changes can prevent or slow down the process from getting worse.

In order to make the appropriate healthy lifestyle changes you should work closely with your doctor. You’ll also need to take the proper medications in order to avoid complications and have your condition under control.

What complications are associated with atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis can cause:

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Heart failure
  • Abnormal heart rhythm
  • Death

Atherosclerosis is also associated with:

Coronary artery disease (CAD)

The coronary arteries are blood vessels that provide your heart with oxygen-rich blood. Coronary artery disease (CAD) happens when the coronary arteries become hard.

Carotid artery disease

The carotid arteries which supply blood to your brain are found in your neck. If plaque builds up in their walls these arteries may be compromised. The lack of circulation may reduce how much oxygen and blood reaches your brain’s tissue and cells. Learn more about carotid artery disease.

Peripheral artery disease

Your arms, legs, and lower body depend on your arteries to supply oxygen-rich blood to their tissues. Circulation problems in these areas of the body may occur if arteries are hardened.

Kidney disease

Blood is supplied to your kidneys through the renal arteries. Kidneys filter extra water and waste products from your blood.

Atherosclerosis of these arteries may result in kidney failure.

Which lifestyle changes can help to prevent and treat atherosclerosis?

Lifestyle changes can help to treat and treat atherosclerosis, especially for people who have type 2 diabetes.
Here are some helpful lifestyle changes:

  • Avoid fatty foods
  • Add fish to your diet, at least twice per week
  • Eat a healthy diet low in cholesterol and saturated fat
  • Get at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise or 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week
  • Manage stress
  • Quit smoking, if you’re a smoker
  • Lose weight if you’re obese or overweight
  • Treat conditions associated with atherosclerosis such as diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol

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Petar Jangelovski
Petar Jangelovski

Petar Jangelovski A former ESL teacher who enjoys reading books and going out with friends. Experienced and creative translator, and once upon a time a poet, who wrote Shakespearean-like sonnets.

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