What is Atherosclerosis, or Hardening of the Arteries?

Blog Post
By South Valley Vascular
January 3, 2023

One of the most common conditions affecting arteries and blood flow is atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, is a condition that mainly affects older adults. What is atherosclerosis, how does it start, and how is it treated? Atherosclerosis is a common condition that can frequently lead to dangerous complications like heart attack and stroke. Having a better understanding of the condition and making necessary lifestyle changes is the best way to minimize its impact.

It can be difficult to imagine why hardened arteries have such an impact. Arteries need to be highly elastic to move blood through the body. The blockage and reduction of blood flow are impacted both by reduced internal area but also the artery’s increased rigidity. This impact on blood flow is why atherosclerosis can be such a dangerous condition if left unchecked.

What is Hardening of the Arteries?

What is hardening of the arteries? Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, happens when fat, cholesterol and other substances collect along the artery walls. These substances, typically called plaque, can narrow or completely block an artery over time. Plaque clots will form and pieces of plaque will move down smaller blood vessels and block them. These blockages starve tissues of blood or oxygen, which can result in damage or tissue death. This is a common cause of heart attack and stroke.

Atherosclerosis is the most common thread of arteriosclerosis. Arteriosclerosis is a range of conditions that affect the artery wall’s thickness and elasticity. The development of Atherosclerosis is complex, but the primary cause is an injury to the artery wall. This injury can be caused by many different factors like inflammatory immune response, infection, or chemical abnormalities in the blood. 

Certain chemical signals cause white blood cells to attach to the artery wall, where plaque begins to accumulate. Over time, this plaque build-up narrows the space in the artery itself. While some factors (like gender, age, or history of early atherosclerosis) can’t be changed, other factors can. To lower atherosclerosis risk, it’s recommended to refrain from tobacco use and maintain a healthy lifestyle. This includes diet and exercise. People at high risk for atherosclerosis may also benefit from certain medications like statins, aspirin, or other antiplatelet drugs.

What Causes Hardening of the Arteries?

What causes the hardening of the arteries? Atherosclerosis can be caused by a number of factors. A major cause is aging and plaque build-up. This narrows the arteries and changes the ability for blood to flow through them. Lifestyle factors like high blood cholesterol levels can increase atherosclerosis at any age. This is especially true for people who eat a diet too high in saturated fats and trans fats. Other factors that can lead to atherosclerosis include diabetes, family history, high blood pressure, a lack of exercise, being overweight or obese, and smoking.

Prevent Atherosclerosis

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to see signs of an artery blockage until it's too late. While Atherosclerosis cannot be reversed, there are steps that can be taken to lessen its impact. 

See your doctor regularly. If you’re a male, screen your cholesterol by age 35, If you’re a female, screen your cholesterol by age 45. Get your blood pressure checked at least once a year after that. Check your blood pressure more frequently if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, or have had a previous stroke. 

Eating a balanced diet, getting 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day, and quitting smoking are all preventive measures for atherosclerosis. Talk to your doctor about options with cholesterol-lowering medication or blood thinners. 

If you’re struggling with complications related to atherosclerosis, you should consult your healthcare provider or vascular specialist. If found early enough, the impact of atherosclerosis can be reduced or mitigated with lifestyle changes and medication. If you’re in the Southern San Joaquin Valley area, visit South Valley Vascular. South Valley Vascular’s board-certified vascular specialists provide top-level care to all its patients.