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Atherosclerosis, a disease of the large arteries, is the primary cause of heart disease and stroke. In westernized societies, it is the underlying cause of about 50% of all deaths. Epidemiological studies have revealed several important environmental and genetic risk factors associated with atherosclerosis. Progress in defining the cellular and molecular interactions involved, however, has been hindered by the disease’s aetiological complexity. Over the past decade, the availability of new investigative tools, including genetically modified mouse models of disease, has resulted in a clearer understanding of the molecular mechanisms that connect altered cholesterol metabolism and other risk factors to the development of atherosclerotic plaque. It is now clear that atherosclerosis is not simply an inevitable degenerative consequence of ageing, but rather a chronic inflammatory condition that can be converted into an acute clinical event by plaque rupture and thrombosis.


You might not have symptoms until your artery is nearly closed or until you have a heart attack or stroke. Symptoms can also depend on which artery is narrowed or blocked.

Symptoms related to your coronary arteries include:

Arrhythmia, an unusual heartbeat

Pain or pressure in your upper body, including your chest, arms, neck, or jaw. This is known as angina.

Shortness of breath

Symptoms related to the arteries that deliver blood to your brain include:

Numbness or weakness in your arms or legs

A hard time speaking or understanding someone who’s talking

Drooping facial muscles


Severe headache

Trouble seeing in one or both eyes

Symptoms related to the arteries of your arms, legs, and pelvis include:

Leg pain when walking



Atherosclerosis is thickening or hardening of the arteries caused by a buildup of plaque in the inner lining of an artery. Risk factors may include high cholesterol and triglyceride levels, high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, obesity, physical activity, and eating saturated fats.

Risk factors

Atherosclerosis starts when you’re young. Research has found that even teenagers can have signs.

If you’re 40 and generally healthy, you have about a 50% chance of getting serious atherosclerosis in your lifetime. The risk goes up as you get older. Most adults older than 60 have some atherosclerosis, but most don’t have noticeable symptoms.

These risk factors are behind more than 90% of all heart attacks:

Abdominal obesity ("spare tire")


High alcohol intake (more than one drink for women, one or two drinks for men, per day)

High blood pressure

High cholesterol

Not eating fruits and vegetables

Not exercising regularly



Rates of death from atherosclerosis have fallen 25% in the past 3 decades. This is because of better lifestyles and improved treatments

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Atherosclerosis can cause a heart attack, stroke, aneurysm, or blood clot. You may need medicine, treatments, or surgery to reduce the complications of atherosclerosis.

The complications of atherosclerosis depend on which arteries are narrowed or blocked. For example:

Coronary artery disease. When atherosclerosis narrows the arteries close to your heart, you may develop coronary artery disease, which can cause chest pain (angina), a heart attack or heart failure.

Carotid artery disease. When atherosclerosis narrows the arteries close to your brain, you may develop carotid artery disease. This can cause a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke.

Peripheral artery disease. When atherosclerosis narrows the arteries in your arms or legs, you may develop blood flow problems in your arms and legs called peripheral artery disease. This can make you less sensitive to heat and cold, increasing your risk of burns or frostbite. Rarely, a lack of blood flow to the arms or legs can cause tissue death (gangrene).

Aneurysms. Atherosclerosis can also cause aneurysms, a serious complication that can occur anywhere in the body. Most people with aneurysms have no symptoms. Pain and throbbing in the area of an aneurysm may occur and is a medical emergency. If an aneurysm bursts, it can cause life-threatening bleeding inside the body.

Chronic kidney disease. Atherosclerosis can cause the arteries leading to the kidneys to narrow. Narrowing of these arteries prevents enough oxygen-rich blood from reaching the kidneys. The kidneys need enough blood flow to help filter waste products and remove excess fluids.


The same healthy lifestyle changes recommended to treat atherosclerosis also help prevent it. These lifestyle changes can help keep the arteries healthy:

Quitting smoking

Eating healthy foods

Exercising regularly

Maintaining a healthy weight

Checking and maintaining a healthy blood pressure

Checking and maintaining healthy cholesterol and blood sugar levels