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Heart Disease Health Center

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Atherosclerosis: Your Arteries Age by Age

Hardening of the arteries starts earlier than you may think.

Atherosclerosis in Your Childhood

Believe it or not, the process of atherosclerosis may begin as early as infancy. Studies of premature babies show that fatty streaks develop even before birth. Babies whose mothers had high cholesterol had more prominent fatty streaks.

Similar studies in children younger than 13 showed the same thing. Fatty streaks began to look more like atherosclerosis in older children, especially kids with obesity or higher cholesterol.

For many of us, these fatty streaks have progressed to mild atherosclerosis even before we turn 20. In a study that looked inside young people's arteries with ultrasound, the arteries of 17% of teenagershad small plaques of atherosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis in Your 20s and 30s

Atherosclerosis is the last thing on most young adults' minds. But early forms of atherosclerosis are frequently present in our 20s and 30s.

Almost no one suffers complications from atherosclerosis at this age. However, smoking, obesity, and other risk factors clearly impair your arteries' function.

Experts don't advocate indiscriminately treating young people for atherosclerosis. It is important to realize that the process is often well under way before we finish high school. Even at these tender ages, changing behavior makes a difference.

Atherosclerosis in Your 40s and 50s

In men after age 50, the rate of atherosclerosis development accelerates markedly. In women, this increased risk is delayed until age 60.

By this time, even if you don't have any evidence of atherosclerosis, your lifetime chances of developing its complications are greater than 50%.

Risk factors are important at any age. But in our 40s and 50s, they begin to really count. For example, if you have multiple risk factors at age 45, your chance of having some atherosclerosis is higher than 80%.

Don't despair, though: There's still time to change. Even after a lifetime of bad habits, adopting a healthy lifestyle in middle age leads quickly to a large reduction in cardiovascular risk.

Atherosclerosis: Age 60 and Up

In our older years, arteries just aren't as vibrant. They become stiffer, less flexible. Perhaps most important, the endothelium doesn't do its crucial jobs as well. After age 60, the balance tips toward progressive atherosclerosis.

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