NHS website

Atherosclerosis (arteriosclerosis)

Find out about atherosclerosis, a potentially serious condition where arteries become clogged with fatty substances. Read about the problems this can cause and who's at risk.

6 August 2018

Introduction

Atherosclerosis is a potentially serious condition where arteries become clogged with fatty substances called plaques, or atheroma.

These plaques cause the arteries to harden and narrow, restricting the blood flow and oxygen supply to vital organs, and increasing the risk of blood clots ↗ that could potentially block the flow of blood to the heart or brain.

Atherosclerosis doesn't tend to have any symptoms at first, and many people may be unaware they have it, but it can eventually cause life-threatening problems such as heart attacks ↗ and strokes ↗ if it gets worse.

However, the condition is largely preventable with a healthy lifestyle, and treatment can help reduce the risk of serious problems occurring.

Health risks of atherosclerosis

If left to get worse, atherosclerosis can potentially lead to a number of serious conditions known as cardiovascular disease (CVD) ↗. There won't usually be any symptoms until CVD develops.

Types of CVD include:

Click on the links above for more information about these conditions, including what the main symptoms and risks are.

Who's at risk of atherosclerosis?

Exactly why and how arteries become clogged is unclear.

It can happen to anyone, although the following things can increase your risk:

You can't do anything about some of these factors, but by tackling things such as an unhealthy diet and a lack of exercise, you can help reduce your risk of atherosclerosis and CVD.

Read more about the risk factors for CVD ↗.

Testing for atherosclerosis

Speak to your GP if you're worried you may be at a high risk of atherosclerosis.

If you're between the ages of 40 and 74, you should have an NHS Health Check ↗ every five years, which will include tests to find out if you're at risk of atherosclerosis and CVD.

Your GP or practice nurse can work out your level of risk by taking into account factors such as:

  • your age, gender and ethnic group
  • your weight and height
  • if you smoke or have previously smoked
  • if you have a family history of CVD
  • your blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • if you have certain long-term conditions

Depending on your result, you may be advised to make lifestyle changes, consider taking medication, or have further tests to check for atherosclerosis and CVD.

Reduce your risk of atherosclerosis

Making healthy lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of developing atherosclerosis and may help stop it getting worse.

The main ways you can reduce your risk are:

Click on the links above for more information. You can also read more specific advice about preventing CVD ↗.

Treatments for atherosclerosis

There aren't currently any treatments that can reverse atherosclerosis, but the healthy lifestyle changes suggested above may help stop it getting worse.

Sometimes additional treatment to reduce the risk of problems like heart attacks and strokes may also be recommended, such as:

Click on the links above for more information about what these treatments involve.