Understanding Atherosclerosis

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, it is called atherosclerosis. This can lead to stiffening and narrowing of the arteries. The condition can start as early as childhood. It can lead to many health problems, including heart disease and 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, 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 ruptures, these contents enter 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 developing 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.

Getting regular exercise; eating a diet low in fat, salt and cholesterol; quitting smoking (if you smoke); managing high blood pressure; and reducing stress are a few of the lifestyle changes that can help reduce your chance of developing these health risks. 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, and a smoke-free lifestyle. Certain medicines can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure. These medicines can slow or even reverse the condition. If you have or are at high risk for atherosclerosis, your healthcare provider can recommend which treatment is best for you.