Atherosclerosis

Also Called 
Arteriosclerosis, hardening of the arteries, Cardiovascular Disease, Coronary Artery or Heart Disease, Peripheral Arterial Disease or PAD, Carotid Artery Disease, Cerebrovascular Disease, Renal Artery Disease, Mesenteric Artery Disease, Vascular Disease

BY DR. LAURA M. DRUDI

Atherosclerosis is a disease process leading to hardening and narrowing (stenosis) of your arteries. The buildup of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances creates plaques inside arteries, which can lead to serious problems including heart attack, strokeamputation and death.

Serious, possibly fatal 

Atherosclerosis-related diseases are the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. for both men and women. Roughly 5 million people in the U.S. are affected.

Preventable—even small changes can help 

Stopping smoking, following a healthy diet, managing cholesterol and staying physically active all decrease the risk of atherosclerosis and improve your overall health.

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The information contained on Vascular.org is not intended, and should not be relied upon, as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. It is very important that individuals with specific medical problems or questions consult with their doctor or other health care professional.
Symptoms

Until the arteries narrow significantly, many people experience no symptoms. Symptoms often appear only when the disease is advanced, and vary with the types of arteries affected. 

PAIN  

Pain in the chest leading to angina or possibly a heart attack may indicate arteries of the heart are affected. Pain in the legs while walking may indicate arteries of the legs are affected. 

SIGNS OF STROKE 

A mini-stroke or stroke may occur if arteries of the neck are affected.

Causes

A variety of characteristics and behaviors called risk factors may contribute to atherosclerosis. 

Some risk factors cannot be changed 

Age, male gender, race and family history can put you at a higher risk.  

Other risk factors can be managed 
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High amounts of cholesterol in the blood
  • High amounts of sugar in the blood
  • High levels of inflammation as the body responds to injury or infection
  • Obesity
  • Lack of physical activity 
  • Mental health issues
  • Stress
Diagnosis
See a vascular surgeon 

A vascular surgeon will ask questions about symptoms and medical history, including family history, and will perform a physical exam.  

Blood tests likely, other tests may be recommended 

The vascular surgeon will likely recommend one or more a blood tests be done. 

Depending on the arteries affected or suspected, additional tests may be recommended to understand the presence and severity of disease. These may include: 

Treatments

The vascular surgeon will provide information to help you understand the effects of atherosclerosis and may recommend changes in behavior or diet. 

Medications may be prescribed, for example, to manage high blood pressure or high cholesterol. 

If needed, surgery will be recommended and may include: 

Staying Healthy

Prevention is key to reducing the risk of atherosclerosis-related disease, primarily through lifestyle and dietary modifications that will improve your overall health.  

  • Stop smoking—ask your vascular surgeon to help you find a smoking cessation program that will work for you
  • Improve nutrition through a balanced diet with reduced salt and fat
  • Control blood pressure and sugar and cholesterol in the blood 
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Manage stress 
  • Increase physical activity