What is atherosclerosis? — Atherosclerosis is a condition in which fatty deposits called "plaques" build up inside the arteries in the body. Arteries are the blood vessels that carry blood away from the heart out to the body. Atherosclerosis is the reason most people have a heart attack or a stroke.
Atherosclerosis can affect arteries all over the body. There are different names for atherosclerosis depending on which arteries it affects.
Carotid artery disease is a form of atherosclerosis that affects the carotid arteries, which bring blood to the brain (figure 1). This form of atherosclerosis can lead to stroke.
Coronary artery disease, also called coronary heart disease, is a form of atherosclerosis that affects the coronary arteries, which bring blood to the heart muscle. This form of atherosclerosis can cause chest pain and lead to heart attack (figure 2).
Renal artery stenosis is a form of atherosclerosis that affects the renal arteries, which bring blood to the kidneys. This form of atherosclerosis can cause high blood pressure or lead to kidney disease.
Peripheral artery disease is a form of atherosclerosis that affects the arteries that bring blood to the arms and legs (figure 3). People with this condition sometimes have pain, tingling, or numbness in their legs when they walk.
How does atherosclerosis cause heart attacks, strokes, and other problems? — Atherosclerosis-related plaques can cause problems in 2 ways:
Plaques can get too big and reduce blood flow to certain body parts (figure 4). This can cause symptoms (such as pain) in the part of the body that is not getting enough blood.
Plaques can break open, or rupture. When that happens, blood clots form inside the artery and block the blood supply to tissues past the clot. This is what happens during a stroke or a heart attack (figure 2).
Who is at risk for atherosclerosis? — A person has a higher chance of getting atherosclerosis if he or she:
Has a high cholesterol or triglycerides (triglycerides are a type of fat found in blood)
Has high blood pressure
Has an unhealthy diet
Is overweight or does very little physical activity
Has a mother or father who got atherosclerosis before the age of 50 years
Will I need tests? — Maybe. Aside from a physical exam, doctors do not typically order tests to check for atherosclerosis. Instead, they order tests if they think a patient might have a specific form of atherosclerosis, such as coronary heart disease or peripheral artery disease. The tests for each of these conditions are all very different.
A test called a "lipid profile" is often done in people who might have atherosclerosis. This is a blood test that measures the amounts of different forms of fat and cholesterol. The level of LDL-cholesterol, also called "bad" cholesterol, is the most important.
Can the problems caused by atherosclerosis be prevented? — Yes. To reduce your chances of having a heart attack, stroke, or related problem, do the following:
Take the medicines your doctor prescribes to treat high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and to prevent clots.
Lose weight (if you are overweight).
Choose a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products. Don't eat a lot of meats, sweets, or refined grains.
Do something active for at least 30 minutes a day on most days of the week.
Quit smoking (if you smoke). Ask your doctor for help.
Limit the amount of alcohol you drink. Have no more than 2 drinks a day if you are a man. Have no more than 1 drink a day if you are a woman.
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This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Mar 30, 2020.
Topic 83344 Version 7.0
Release: 28.2.2 - C28.105
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