Atherosclerosis (arteriosclerosis)

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 does not 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.

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

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 will not 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 1 side, weakness on 1 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:

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

Find out more about the risk factors for CVD

Testing for atherosclerosis

Speak to your GP if you're worried you may be at a high risk of atherosclerosis.

If you're between the ages of 40 and 74, you should have an NHS Health Check every 5 years, which will include tests to find out if you're at risk of atherosclerosis and CVD.

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

  • your 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:

Read more specific advice about preventing CVD

Treatments for atherosclerosis

There are not 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:

Page last reviewed: Mon May 2022 Next review due: Mon May 2022

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