What is atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is a condition in which fatty material, such as fats and cholesterol in the bloodstream, collects along the walls of arteries. This fatty material thickens, hardens, and forms hard structures called plaques that narrow, and may eventually block blood flow through, the arteries. Narrowing and blockage of arteries results in hypertension, chest pain, transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke, poor circulation to legs and feet, and other cardiovascular symptoms.

Atherosclerosis is a common cardiovascular disease in the United States. The disease is a leading cause of illness and death in the United States. Most commonly, people develop atherosclerosis as a result of diabetes, genetic risk factors, high blood pressure, a high-fat diet, obesity, high blood cholesterol levels, and smoking.

The signs and symptoms of atherosclerosis are usually not apparent until blood flow becomes restricted. The course of the disease varies among individuals. Some people with atherosclerosis have no symptoms at all, while others may have severe hypertension, aneurysm, blood clots, and coronary or peripheral artery disease. Fortunately, atherosclerosis can be treated successfully with medications, a healthy diet and lifestyle changes, and certain medical procedures. Even better, you can reduce your risk of atherosclerosis by following a heart-healthy diet, getting regular physical activity, and having regular checkups with your health care provider.

Left untreated, atherosclerosis may lead to severe blood clots, which can cause stroke, heart attack, or pulmonary embolism. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms, such as sweating and severe difficulty breathing, which may be combined with pale or blue lips, fast heart rate, chest pain or pressure, loss of consciousness, severe headache, or sudden numbness or weakness. Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for atherosclerosis but mild symptoms recur or are persistent, such as leg pain or chest pressure.


What are the symptoms of atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis narrows the arteries and reduces blood flow to body organs and tissues, resulting in a number of symptoms. The symptoms can vary in intensity among individuals. Mild atherosclerosis usually does not produce any symptoms. However, symptoms of moderate to severe atherosclerosis depend on which arteries are affected.... Read more about atherosclerosissymptoms


What causes atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is caused by the accumulation in the bloodstream of fat, cholesterol, and other substances that build up on the walls of arteries and form hard structures called plaques. Plaque narrows and stiffens the arteries, making it difficult for blood to flow through the artery. In addition, pieces of plaque can break off and travel through the affected artery (embolize) and lodge in smaller blood vessels, blocking them and causing tissue damage, which may be life threatening. Atherosclerosis occurs most often in people who have a family history of heart disease or other risk factors for the development... Read more about atherosclerosiscauses


How is atherosclerosis treated?

Treatment of atherosclerosis begins with seeking medical care from your health care provider. To determine if you have atherosclerosis, your health care provider will ask you to undergo diagnostic testing.... Read more about atherosclerosistreatments

Medical Reviewer: All content has been reviewed by board-certified physicians under the direction of Rich Klasco, M.D., FACEP. Last Annual Review Date: May 2, 2011 Copyright: © Copyright 2011 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Heart, Blood and Circulation