Atherosclerosis is a thickening of the walls of the arteries. Find out how it affects the body, the risk factors involved, prevention and treatment.

Media last reviewed: 30/04/2013

Next review due: 30/04/2015

The arteries

The circulation system is made up of arteries and veins. The blood is pumped from the heart and through the aorta (the main artery leading from the heart) before travelling through increasingly small arteries that branch off from each other.

The blood passes into tiny blood vessels, known as capillaries, where the oxygen in the blood is transferred into the cells of your body's tissues and organs. The blood then returns to the heart through the veins.

Two particularly important arteries are:

  • coronary arteries – which provide blood to the heart
  • carotid arteries – which supply blood to the brain

If a blood clot occurs in the coronary artery it can trigger a heart attack. Similarly a blood clot in the carotid artery can trigger a stroke.

Atherosclerosis is a potentially serious condition where arteries become clogged up by fatty substances, such as cholesterol. These substances are called plaques or atheromas.

The plaques cause affected arteries to harden and narrow which is potentially dangerous for two reasons:

  • restricted blood flow can damage organs and stop them functioning properly
  • if a plaque ruptures, it can cause a blood clot that blocks the blood supply to the heart – triggering a heart attack, or the brain – triggering a stroke

Cardiovascular disease (CVD)

Atherosclerosis is a major risk factor for many conditions involving the flow of blood.

Collectively, these conditions are known as cardiovascular disease (CVD). Examples of CVD include:

Read more about symptoms of atherosclerosis and the CVDs it can lead to.

What causes atherosclerosis?

Exactly how arteries become clogged is still unclear, though there are certain things that increase your risk of atherosclerosis. These include:

Read more about causes and risk factors for atherosclerosis.

Treating atherosclerosis

Treatment for atherosclerosis aims to prevent the condition from worsening to the point that it can trigger a serious CVD, such as a heart attack.

This can be achieved by making lifestyle changes, such as eating a healthier diet and increasing exercise, and also using certain medications, such as statins, to help lower cholesterol levels

In some cases, surgery may be required to widen or bypass a section of a blocked or narrowed artery.

Read more about the treatment of atherosclerosis.

Who is affected

It is hard to estimate how common atherosclerosis is, although it is suspected almost all adults have some degree of  the condition.

A person’s arteries naturally get harder as they grow older. Therefore, atherosclerosis tends to be more common in people over 40 years of age.

Atherosclerosis is more common in men than women. It is thought this is because sex hormones used in the female reproductive cycle, such as oestrogen, provide some protection against the effects of atherosclerosis.

The public health impact of atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis (and the resulting cardiovascular diseases) is the single biggest cause of death in the developed world, accounting for one in three of all deaths.

Each year in England and Wales, an estimated 124,000 deaths are caused by CVD. Around 39,000 of these deaths occur in people under 75 years of age. Also, for every death, CVD causes two non-fatal, but serious, complications, such as a stroke or heart attack.

It is expected that atherosclerosis will continue to be a major health problem in this country due to the on-going obesity epidemic.  

Page last reviewed: 30/04/2012

Next review due: 30/04/2014


How helpful is this page?

Average rating

Based on 197 ratings

All ratings

Add your rating


The 1 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

jimissaved said on 21 January 2012

wife's colestreol level is 7.0 is this at danger point, she attending the doctors

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Healthy hearts

Heart disease is the most common cause of death in the UK. Find out what to do to keep your heart fit for purpose

Find and choose services for Atherosclerosis