Atherosclerosis thickening or hardening of the arteries. It is caused by a buildup of plaque in the inner lining of an artery.
Plaque is made up of deposits of fatty substances, cholesterol, cellular waste products, calcium, and fibrin. As it builds up in the arteries, the artery walls become thickened and stiff.
Atherosclerosis is a slow, progressive disease that may start as early as childhood. However, it can progress rapidly.
It's not clear exactly how atherosclerosis starts or what causes it. However, a gradual buildup of plaque or thickening due to inflammation occurs on the inside of the walls of the artery. This reduces blood flow and oxygen supply to the vital body organs and extremities.
Risk factors for atherosclerosis, include:
Signs and symptoms of atherosclerosis may develop gradually, and may be few, as the plaque gradually builds up in the artery. Symptoms may also vary depending on the affected artery. However, when a major artery is blocked, signs and symptoms may be severe, such as those occurring with heart attack, stroke, or blood clot.
The symptoms of atherosclerosis may look like other heart conditions. See your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
First, your doctor will do a complete medical history and physical exam. You may also have one or more of these tests:
Treatment for atherosclerosis may include lifestyle changes, medicine, and surgery.
You can change some risk factors for atherosclerosis such as smoking, high cholesterol levels, high blood sugar (glucose) levels, lack of exercise, poor dietary habits, and high blood pressure.
Medicines that may be used to treat atherosclerosis include:
With this procedure, a long thin tube (catheter) is thread through a blood vessel to the heart. There, a balloon is inflated to create a bigger opening in the vessel to increase blood flow. Although angioplasty is done in other blood vessels elsewhere in the body, percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) refers to angioplasty in the coronary arteries to permit more blood flow into the heart. There are several types of PCI procedures, including:
Most commonly referred to as bypass surgery, this surgery is often done in people who have angina (chest pain) due to coronary artery disease (where plaque has built up in the arteries). During the surgery, a bypass is created by grafting a piece of a healthy vein from elsewhere in the body and attaching it above and below the blocked area of a coronary artery. This lets blood flow around the blockage. Veins are usually taken from the leg or from the chest wall. Sometimes more than one artery needs to be bypassed during the same surgery.
Plaque buildup inside the arteries reduces the blood flow. A heart attack may occur if the blood supply is reduced to the heart. A damaged heart muscle may not pump as well and can lead to heart failure. A stroke may occur if the blood supply is cut off to the brain. Severe pain and tissue death may occur if the blood supply is reduced to the arms and legs.
You can prevent or delay atherosclerosis by reducing risk factors. This includes adopting a healthy lifestyle. A healthy diet, losing weight, being physically active, and not smoking can help reduce your risk of atherosclerosis. A healthy diet includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, skinless chicken, seafood, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. A healthy diet also limits sodium, refined sugars and grains, and solid fats.
If you are at risk for atherosclerosis because of family history, or high cholesterol, it is important that you take medicines as directed by your healthcare provider.
If your symptoms get worse or you have new symptoms, let your healthcare provider know.
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider: