Atherosclerosis – causes, symptoms and treatment

Atherosclerosis is a potentially serious condition where arteries become clogged with fatty substances called plaques, or atheroma.

These plaques cause the arteries to harden and narrow, restricting the blood flow and oxygen supply to vital organs, and increasing the risk of blood clots that could potentially block the flow of blood to the heart or brain.

Atherosclerosis doesn’t tend to have any symptoms at first, and many people may be unaware they have it, but it can eventually cause life-threatening problems such as heart attacks and strokes if it gets worse.

However, the condition is largely preventable with a healthy lifestyle, and treatment can help reduce the risk of serious problems occurring.

Health risks of atherosclerosis

If left to get worse, atherosclerosis can potentially lead to a number of serious conditions known as cardiovascular disease (CVD). There won’t usually be any symptoms until CVD develops.

Types of CVD include:

  • coronary heart disease – the main arteries that supply your heart (the coronary arteries) become clogged with plaques
  • angina – short periods of tight, dull or heavy chest pain caused by coronary heart disease, which may precede a heart attack
  • heart attacks – where the blood supply to your heart is blocked, causing sudden crushing or indigestion-like chest pain that can radiate to nearby areas, as well as shortness of breath and dizziness
  • strokes – where the blood supply to your brain is interrupted, causing the face to droop to one side, weakness on one side of the body, and slurred speech
  • transient ischaemic attacks (TIAs) – where there are temporary symptoms of a stroke
  • peripheral arterial disease – where the blood supply to your legs is blocked, causing leg pain when walking

Who’s at risk of atherosclerosis?

Exactly why and how arteries become clogged is unclear.

It can happen to anyone, although the following things can increase your risk:

  • increasing age
  • smoking
  • an unhealthy, high-fat diet
  • lack of exercise
  • being overweight or obese
  • regularly drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
  • other conditions, including high blood pressure, high cholesteroland diabetes
  • a family history of atherosclerosis and CVD

You can’t do anything about some of these factors, but by tackling things such as an unhealthy diet and a lack of exercise, you can help reduce your risk of atherosclerosis and CVD.

Testing for atherosclerosis

Your doctor or practice nurse can work out your level of risk by taking into account factors such as:

  •  age, gender and ethnic group
  • your weight and height
  • if you smoke or have previously smoked
  • if you have a family history of CVD
  • your blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • if you have certain long-term conditions

Depending on your result, you may be advised to make lifestyle changes, consider taking medication, or have further tests to check for atherosclerosis and CVD.

Reduce your risk of atherosclerosis

Making healthy lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of developing atherosclerosis and may help stop it getting worse.

The main ways you can reduce your risk are:

  • stop smoking 
  • have a healthy diet – avoid foods that are high in saturated fats, salt or sugar, and aim to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day; read more healthy diet advice
  • exercise regularly – aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity such as cycling or fast walking every week, and strength exercises on at least two days a week
  • maintain a healthy weight – aim for a body mass index (BMI) of 18.5 to 24.9; use the BMI calculator to work out your BMI and read advice about losing weight
  • moderate your alcohol consumption – men and women are advise not to regularly drink more than 14 alcohol units a week; get tips on cutting down on alcohol

Treatments for atherosclerosis

There aren’t currently any treatments that can reverse atherosclerosis, but the healthy lifestyle changes suggested above may help stop it getting worse.

Sometimes additional treatment to reduce the risk of problems like heart attacks and strokes may also be recommended, such as:

  • statins for high cholesterol – read more about treating high cholesterol
  • medicines for high blood pressure – read more about treating high blood pressure
  • medicines to reduce the risk of blood clots – such as low-dose aspirin or clopidogrel
  • dietary changes and medication for diabetes – read more about treating type 1 diabetes and treating type 2 diabetes
  • a procedure to widen or bypass an affected artery – such as a coronary angioplasty, a coronary artery bypass graft, or a carotid endarterectomy

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