Understanding Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis is when the walls of blood vessels that carry blood from the heart to the rest of the body become thickened due to plaque buildup and inflammation. This can lead to stiffening and narrowing of the arteries. The condition can start as early as childhood. It can affect arteries all over the body. It can lead to many health problems, depending on which arteries in the body are affected. Narrowed heart arteries may lead to a heart attack. Narrowed arteries that bring blood to the brain can cause a stroke.

How does it happen?

Atherosclerosis is a disease that develops slowly over time. Excess cholesterol and other matter in the blood form plaques, which line the inner wall of the arteries. Some plaques are hard and contain large amounts of calcium. Others are soft. These are made mostly of semi-liquid cholesterol and inflammatory cells that are contained by a fibrous cap. Atherosclerosis can lead to narrowed arteries. This makes it harder for blood to carry oxygen and nutrients to the brain, heart, kidneys, and other organs. If the fibrous cap of soft plaque bursts open (ruptures), these contents are exposed to the bloodstream. This causes a blood clot that can block the artery. This can lead to a heart attack, stroke, or other serious or even life-threatening problem with the circulation. Diseases caused by atherosclerosis are the leading cause of death in the U.S.

How can I prevent it?

Certain risk factors increase the chance of having atherosclerosis. These include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity. So managing these conditions can also help reduce your risk for atherosclerosis. This in turn can help prevent the heart conditions that can result.

These are some of the things you can do to reduce your risk:

  • Get regular exercise

  • Eat a diet low in fat, salt, and cholesterol

  • Quit smoking, if you smoke

  • Control high blood pressure

  • Reduce stress

Working with your healthcare provider to keep your risk factors low is important. Age and a family history of early heart disease are also risk factors for atherosclerosis.

How is it treated?

Treatment for atherosclerosis starts with a healthy diet, physical activity, healthy weight, and a smoke-free lifestyle. Certain medicines can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Some people who have risk factors for atherosclerosis or a heart attack may be prescribed aspirin. This depends on your age and your own risk factors. It's a decision that should be made between you and your healthcare provider. These medicines can slow or even reverse the condition. They can also help protect you from having a heart attack or stroke. If you have or are at high risk for atherosclerosis, your provider can advise which treatment is best for you.

Online Medical Reviewer: Stacey Wojcik MBA BSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Steven Kang MD
Date Last Reviewed: 5/1/2022
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