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Understanding Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis is a condition that occurs when the lining of the arteries, the blood vessels that carry blood from the heart to the rest of the body, becomes thickened. This can lead to abnormal stiffening and narrowing of the arteries. The condition can start as early as childhood and can lead to many health conditions, including heart disease and stroke.

How does it happen?

Atherosclerosis is a disease that develops slowly over time. Excess cholesterol and other substances in the blood form plaques, which line the inner surface of the arteries. Plaques vary in their composition; some are hard and contain relatively large amounts of calcium, and others are soft, made mostly of semi-liquid cholesterol and inflammatory cells that are contained by a fibrous "cap." Atherosclerosis can lead to narrowing of the arteries, which makes it more difficult for blood to carry oxygen and nutrients to the brain, heart, kidneys, and other organs. If the fibrous cap of soft plaque ruptures, releasing the interior contents, a heart attack, stroke, or other serious or even life-threatening problem with the circulation can occur. Diseases caused by atherosclerosis are the leading cause of death in the United States.

How can I prevent it?

Certain risk factors increase the chance of developing atherosclerosis. These include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity, which are also components of the metabolic syndrome. So managing the components of the metabolic syndrome can also help reduce your risk for atherosclerosis. This, in turn, can help prevent the heart conditions that can result. Getting regular exercise; eating a diet low in fat, salt and cholesterol; quitting smoking (if you smoke); and managing high blood pressure are a few of the lifestyle changes that can help reduce your chance of developing these health risks. Working with your health care provider to keep your risk factors low is important. Age and a family history of early heart disease are also risk factors for atherosclerosis.

How is it treated?

Treatment for atherosclerosis starts with a healthy diet, physical activity, and a smoke-free lifestyle. Certain medications can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure. These medications can slow or even reverse the condition. If you have or are at high risk for atherosclerosis, your provider can recommend which treatment is best for you.