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Atherosclerosis - Topic Overview

What is atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis, sometimes called "hardening of the arteries," occurs when fat (cholesterol) and calcium build up inside the lining of the artery wall, forming a substance called plaque. Over time, the fat and calcium buildup narrows the artery and blocks blood flow through it.

Atherosclerosis can happen in all arteries. If you have atherosclerosis in one of your arteries, there is a good chance that you have atherosclerosis in other blood vessels throughout your body.

What problems does atherosclerosis cause?

Coronary artery disease. When atherosclerosis affects the arteries that supply blood to the heart, the coronary arteries, it can restrict blood flow to the heart muscle.

Heart attack. Plaque, caused by atherosclerosis, is surrounded by a fibrous cap. This fibrous cap may tear or rupture. A tear or rupture tells the body to repair the injured artery lining, much as it might heal a cut on the skin by forming a blood clot to seal the area. A blood clot that forms in an artery can completely block blood flow to the heart muscle and cause a heart attack. See a picture of how atherosclerosis can cause a heart attack camera.gif.

Stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA). When atherosclerosis affects the arteries that supply blood to the brain, it may cause a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke.

Peripheral arterial disease. Atherosclerosis can affect arteries in other parts of the body, such as the pelvis and legs, causing poor circulation.

Abdominal aortic aneurysm. Atherosclerosis can make the walls of the aorta weak. The aorta is the large artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body.

How is atherosclerosis treated?

A major part of treating atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease involves lifestyle changes (such as quitting smoking) and medicines to help reduce high cholesterol, control high blood pressure, and manage other things that increase a person's risk of heart attack, stroke, and other complications.

How can you slow down atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is a process, and there are ways you can slow it down and help lower your risk for heart attack and stroke. A heart-healthy lifestyle can lower your risk. This includes eating heart-healthy foods, being active, staying at a healthy weight, and not smoking. All of these things have many benefits for your body, your heart, and your blood vessels. If your risk is high, you might also take medicines that lower your risk. These include medicines to lower cholesterol and blood pressure.

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