Are You at Risk for Atherosclerosis?

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on March 07, 2021


Atherosclerosis is narrowing of the arteries due to plaque buildup. It's the key cause of heart attacks and strokes and the No. 1 killer in the U.S.

Because atherosclerosis is silent until it's advanced, determining your health risk takes some educated guesswork. The risk factors are easy to spot. You can use the same tools your doctor uses to learn where you stand.

What Raises Your Chances of Atherosclerosis

To get started, consider your medical history. If you've had one of these, you probably have atherosclerosis:

People with diabetes also have a good chance of having health risks associated with atherosclerosis. In fact, guidelines for treating cholesterol in people with diabetes assume atherosclerosis is already present.

Next, count the things that raise your odds:

Be sure to share these with your doctor.

In some cases, doctors use a risk calculator to figure out your chances of atherosclerosis. The American Heart Association has a similar tool.

You'll need some information, including your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.  Your ASCVD Risk Score (as it’s called) provides your 10-year risk of having a heart attack or dying from heart disease.

Based on your results, you'll fit in one of three categories:

Low risk: You have less than a 5% chance of having a heart attack in the next 10 years. No further testing or treatment is needed if you have no symptoms. You should lower your chance even further with a healthy diet, exercise, and control over your blood pressure. Don’t smoke, either.

Moderate risk: That’s a 5% to 7½% chance of having a heart attack in the next 10 years. Here's the gray area: Besides the lifestyle improvements listed above, you may need more treatment to lower your cholesterol. Your doctor may want more testing to look for blockages in your heart.

Higher risk: It’s time to take atherosclerosis very seriously. You have more than a 7½% chance of a heart attack in the next decade. You and your doctor should have an aggressive plan to cut your risk.

WebMD Medical Reference



Wilson, P., Circulation, 1998.

Third report of the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Expert Panel on detection, evaluation, and treatment of high blood cholesterol in adults (Adult Treatment Panel III).

Circulation, 2002.

American Heart Association.

Richard Stein, MD, national spokesman, American Heart Association; professor of medicine and director of urban community cardiology program, New York University School of Medicine, New York.

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