COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Information

Your health and safety are our top priorities. Learn more about our COVID-19 evaluation and testing and our commitment to providing great care while maintaining the safest environment possible.

Health Library

Atherosclerosis
Site Map

Atherosclerosis

Hardening of the arteries; Arteriosclerosis; Plaque buildup - arteries; Hyperlipidemia - atherosclerosis; Cholesterol - atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis, sometimes called "hardening of the arteries," occurs when fat, cholesterol, and other substances build up in the walls of arteries. These deposits are called plaques. Over time, these plaques can narrow or completely block the arteries and cause problems throughout the body.

Atherosclerosis is a common disorder.

Images

Carotid stenosis - X-ray of the left artery
Carotid stenosis - X-ray of the right artery
Enlarged view of atherosclerosis
Prevention of heart disease
Developmental process of atherosclerosis
Angina
Atherosclerosis
Cholesterol producers

Presentation

Coronary artery balloon angioplasty - Series

Animation

Atherosclerosis

I Would Like to Learn About:

Causes

Atherosclerosis often occurs with aging. As you grow older, plaque buildup narrows your arteries and makes them stiffer. These changes make it harder for blood to flow through them.

Clots may form in these narrowed arteries and block blood flow. Pieces of plaque can also break off and move to smaller blood vessels, blocking them.

These blockages starve tissues of blood and oxygen. This can result in damage or tissue death. It is a common cause of heart attack and stroke.

High blood cholesterol levels can cause hardening of the arteries at a younger age.

For many people, high cholesterol levels are due to a diet that is too high in saturated fats and trans fats.

Other factors that can contribute to hardening of the arteries include:

Symptoms

Atherosclerosis does not cause symptoms until blood flow to part of the body becomes slowed or blocked.

If the arteries supplying the heart become narrow, blood flow can slow down or stop. This can cause chest pain (stable angina), shortness of breath, and other symptoms.

Narrowed or blocked arteries may also cause problems in the intestines, kidneys, legs, and brain.

Exams and Tests

A health care provider will perform a physical exam and listen to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope. Atherosclerosis can create a whooshing or blowing sound ("bruit") over an artery.

All adults over the age of 18 should have their blood pressure checked every year. More frequent measurement may be needed for those with a history of high blood pressure readings or those with risk factors for high blood pressure.

Cholesterol testing is recommended in all adults. The major national guidelines differ on the suggested age to start testing.

A number of imaging tests may be used to see how well blood moves through your arteries.

Treatment

Lifestyle changes will reduce your risk of atherosclerosis. Things you can do include:

If your blood pressure is high, it is important for you to lower it and keep it under control.

The goal of treatment is to reduce your blood pressure so that you have a lower risk of health problems caused by high blood pressure. You and your provider should set a blood pressure goal for you.

Your provider may want you to take medicine for abnormal cholesterol levels or for high blood pressure if lifestyle changes do not work. This will depend on:

Your provider may suggest taking aspirin or another medicine to help prevent blood clots from forming in your arteries. These medicines are called antiplatelet drugs. DO NOT take aspirin without first talking to your provider.

Losing weight if you are overweight and reducing blood sugar if you have diabetes or pre-diabetes can help reduce the risk of developing atherosclerosis.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Atherosclerosis cannot be reversed once it has occurred. However, lifestyle changes and treating high cholesterol levels can prevent or slow the process from becoming worse. This can help reduce the chances of having a heart attack and stroke as a result of atherosclerosis.

Possible Complications

In some cases, the plaque is part of a process that causes a weakening of the wall of an artery. This can lead to a bulge in an artery called an aneurysm. Aneurysms can break open (rupture). This causes bleeding that can be life threatening.

Related Information

Chest pain
Diabetes
Overweight
High blood cholesterol levels
Stroke
Peripheral artery disease - legs
Stable angina
Angina
Heart attack
Transient ischemic attack
Lipoprotein-a
Magnetic resonance angiography
Limb plethysmography
Metabolic syndrome
Aortic aneurysm repair - endovascular
Abdominal aortic aneurysm repair - open
Type 2 diabetes - what to ask your doctor
Heart failure - what to ask your doctor
High blood pressure - what to ask your doctor
Aortic aneurysm repair - endovascular - discharge
Abdominal aortic aneurysm repair - open - discharge
Aspirin and heart disease
Heart failure - discharge

References

Arnett DK, Blumenthal RS, Albert MA, Buroker AB, et al. 2019 ACC/AHA Guideline on the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease: executive summary: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Clinical Practice Guidelines. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2019;74(10):1376-1414.PMID: 30894319 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30894319/.

Genest J, Libby P. Lipoprotein disorders and cardiovascular disease. In: Zipes DP, Libby P, Bonow RO, Mann DL, Tomaselli GF, Braunwald E, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 48.

James PA, Oparil S, Carter BL, et al. 2014 evidence-based guideline for the management of high blood pressure in adults: report from the panel members appointed to the Eighth Joint National Committee (JNC 8). JAMA. 2014;311(5):507-520. PMID: 24352797 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24352797/.

Libby P. The vascular biology of atherosclerosis. In: Zipes DP, Libby P, Bonow RO, Mann DL, Tomaselli GF, Braunwald E, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 44.

Marks AR. Cardiac and circulatory function. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 47.

US Preventive Services Task Force website. Final recommendation statement: statin use for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease in adults: preventive medication. Updated November 13, 2016. Accessed January 28, 2020. www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/Page/Document/RecommendationStatementFinal/statin-use-in-adults-preventive-medication1.

Whelton PK, Carey RM, Aronow WS, et al. 2017 ACC/AHA/AAPA/ABC/ACPM/AGS/APhA/ASH/ASPC/NMA/PCNA guideline for the prevention, detection, evaluation, and management of high blood pressure in adults: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Clinical Practice Guidelines. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2018;71(19):2199-2269. PMID: 2914653 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29146533/.

BACK TO TOP

Review Date: 1/27/2020  

Reviewed By: Michael A. Chen, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

ADAM Quality Logo

A.D.A.M., Inc. is accredited by URAC, for Health Content Provider (www.urac.org). URAC's accreditation program is an independent audit to verify that A.D.A.M. follows rigorous standards of quality and accountability. A.D.A.M. is among the first to achieve this important distinction for online health information and services. Learn more about A.D.A.M.'s editorial policy, editorial process and privacy policy. A.D.A.M. is also a founding member of Hi-Ethics. This site complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information: verify here.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- 2020 A.D.A.M., a business unit of Ebix, Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

adam.com

A.D.A.M. content is best viewed in IE9 or above, Firefox and Google Chrome browser.