Atherosclerosis - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Blood flow through an arteryAtherosclerosis is the build-up of fatty material inside your arteries. It’s the condition that causes most heart attacks and strokes.

Causes of atherosclerosis

Fatty material called atheroma builds up in the lining of your artery walls and narrows your arteries. 

Over time it can grow bigger until your arteries become so narrow that they can’t let enough blood through. 

How can this affect me?

Over time, atherosclerosis can lead to:

  • Angina – usually a pain or discomfort in your chest. This happens when your heart muscle isn’t getting enough blood. 
  • Heart attack – if the fatty material breaks down and a blood clot forms, it can completely block your artery and cut off the supply of blood to your heart. This is a heart attack.
  • Stroke - when enough blood can’t get to your brain. If the blood supply is limited for a short time this can cause a mini-stroke (called a TIA). If the fatty material breaks down and a blood clot forms, it can completely block the artery.
  • Peripheral arterial disease (or PAD) – when enough blood can’t get to your leg muscles. This can cause pain in your calves, hips, buttocks and thighs – usually when you’re walking or exercising.

Atherosclerosis risk factors

Atherosclerosis is very common. The risk factors for developing atherosclerosis are the same as for other types of cardiovascular disease. 

It’s more common for people over 65 and those with a family history of heart or circulatory disease. Your risk also grows if you:

Managing these conditions if you have them and having a healthy lifestyle can help to lower your chance of developing atherosclerosis.

What are the symptoms of atherosclerosis?

Most people with atherosclerosis don’t know they have it until they get symptoms like angina or have a heart attack or stroke.

If you’re over 40, then you may be able to have a health check at your GP surgery. These assessments will check your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Based on your results, your GP or nurse will advise you on what you can do to keep your heart healthy, and consider treatment - such as medicine - to protect your heart. 

Can atherosclerosis be treated?

Atherosclerosis can’t be stopped and current treatments can’t reverse it. But there are medicines and other treatments that can slow down its progress and lower your chances of having a heart attack or stroke. Your doctor will tell you what treatment you might need.

Having a healthy lifestyle and managing your risk factors if you have them is vital too.

Atherosclerosis - your quick guideAtherosclerosis - your quick guide

This short illustrated leaflet explains what atherosclerosis is, how it can affect you and what you can do about it. It's useful for anyone who has been diagnosed with coronary heart disease - including angina - or who has a risk factor for developing the condition, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.

Download it here.

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