Atherosclerosis is a vascular disease that is caused by a buildup of plaque in the inner lining (intima) of arteries that restricts or blocks blood flow to a specific organ or region of the body. The figure shows normal and diseased arteries.
If the plaque surface becomes irregular or ulcerated, it may accumulate small blood clots and plaque contents. The particles (emboli) travel in the circulatory system, ultimately blocking flow through tiny blood vessels. Blocking the flow to sensitive organs, such as the brain, may lead to organ ischemia (oxygen deprivation). Ischemia to the brain is referred to as a stroke.
The exact cause of atherosclerosis is unknown, but inflammation of the intima is associated with the development of disease. It occurs normally as people grow older, and it may begin earlier in individuals with a strong family history of vascular disease.
There may be no warning signs in some individuals, although there are well recognized symptoms of atherosclerosis that occur when a blockage or small emboli affect the blood flow to various organs. Depending upon which artery is narrow or blocked, your symptoms might vary.
- If your diseased artery supplies blood to your heart, you may have coronary artery disease and experience chest pain or a heart attack.
- If your diseased artery supplies blood to your brain, you may have a transient ischemic attack (TIA) known as a "warning stroke", or stroke.
- If your diseased artery supplies blood to your lower extremities, you may have peripheral artery disease and experience muscle pain when walking and be at risk of leg amputation.
- If your diseased artery supplies blood to your kidneys, you may have high blood pressure or kidney disease.
Treatment & Prevention
You may not be able to prevent atherosclerosis, but you can slow down its progression by adopting a healthy lifestyle:
- Eat a healthy, low-fat diet, including lots of fruits and vegetables.
- Maintain a healthy weight and avoid weight gain as you age.
- Get plenty of regular exercise.
- If you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, see your doctor regarding medication, and follow the treatment plan.
- Control and reduce stress.
- Stop smoking.
American Heart Association
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
National Stroke Association