Atherosclerosis | Causes & Risk Factors


What causes atherosclerosis?

Doctors don’t know exactly what causes atherosclerosis. It may first develop when the inner layers of your arteries become damaged. Many things can cause this damage, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Overweight or obesity
  • Smoking and tobacco use
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • Family history of heart disease

When damage occurs, your body tries to repair your arteries. The repair process creates plaque (say: “plak”) deposits in the walls of the arteries. Plaque is made of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other things that are naturally found in your blood. Over time, this plaque builds up in your arteries, becomes hard and makes your arteries narrow.

How do my cholesterol levels contribute to atherosclerosis?

High cholesterol can increase your risk for atherosclerosis. Cholesterol is a waxy substance your body uses to protect nerves, make cell tissues and produce certain hormones. Some cholesterol is essential for health.

Your liver can make all the cholesterol your body needs. Your body also gets cholesterol directly from the food you eat (such as eggs, meats and dairy products).

There are 2 important types of cholesterol to know about: low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good” cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is the type of cholesterol found in plaque. High levels of LDL cholesterol can damage your arteries and contribute to atherosclerosis. However, a high level of HDL cholesterol can actually help protect your arteries and prevent atherosclerosis.


See a list of resources used in the development of this information.

Written by editorial staff

Created: 12/10