Atherosclerosis (say: “ath-er-o-skler-o-sis”) is a disease that causes your arteries to become hard and narrowed. It’s even possible for an artery to become completely blocked. Your arteries are blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body.
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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:
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.
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.
Atherosclerosis is the primary cause of cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Types of cardiovascular disease include:
You can help prevent atherosclerosis by making lifestyle changes. The following lifestyle changes will reduce your risk of atherosclerosis by helping you lose weight, lower LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and control your blood sugar (important if you have diabetes).
Your doctor may prescribe medicines to lower your blood pressure or cholesterol levels and to prevent blood clots. If you have severe atherosclerosis or have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, your doctor may recommend a procedure or surgery to open or bypass your blocked arteries.
American Heart Association. Cardiovascular disease statistics. Accessed October 20, 2010
American Heart Association. Lifestyle changes and cholesterol. Accessed October 20, 2010
Fish consumption, fish oil, omega-3 fatty acids, and cardiovascular disease by Kris-Etherton PM, Harris WS and Appel LJ (Circulation 2002;106;2747-57 , http://circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/content/full/106/21/2747)
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Arteriosclerosis/atherosclerosis. Accessed October 20, 2010
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Cholesterol: Top 5 foods to lower your numbers. Accessed October 20, 2010
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Atherosclerosis. Accessed October 20, 2010
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) section. Accessed October 20, 2010
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff