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What is atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is a build-up of fatty plaques in the wall of the arteries made up of mainly cholesterol which causes narrowing of the arteries. 

What causes atherosclerosis?

Many different interrelated factors can cause atherosclerosis.Since plaque builds up over such a long period of time, it can be hard to determine exactly what caused any one specific case of atherosclerosis.

Common contributing factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high levels of triglycerides - a specific type of fat found in our blood that’s made up of excess calories. Other causes of plaque build-up that can cause atherosclerosis include smoking, insulin resistance (often through diabetes), or inflammation.

Diseases or conditions that damage the arteries can also contribute to the development of atherosclerosis. Once the damage has occurred, it’s common for blood cells and other substances to clump around the injury site, causing even more damage.

What are common symptoms of atherosclerosis?

Most of the time, it’s almost impossible to tell that plaque is building up in our arteries without a specific diagnostic test. Most of us won’t feel or notice any symptoms until our atherosclerosis has progressed to moderate or even severe levels. 

At that point, you may experience some of the following symptoms:

  •   Chest pain or pressure
  •   Numbness or weakness in your extremities
  •   Difficulty speaking
  •   Slurred speech
  •   Temporary loss of vision
  •   Leg pain
  •   High blood pressure

If you experience any of these symptoms, you should consult a doctor right away.  

What distinguishes atherosclerosis from arteriosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is a specific type of arteriosclerosis. While atherosclerosis involves a build-up of plaque in the arteries, arteriosclerosis refers to the overall hardening and thickening of arteries. Both of these conditions restrict blood flow to the organs, but for two different reasons.

Related Terms


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Photo of Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson

Medically reviewed by:

Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson, Ph.D., RD

Kristin is an RDN who also earned her Ph.D. in Nutrition from Arizona State University with an emphasis on insulin resistance, lipid metabolism disorders, and obesity. She completed her post-doctoral fellowship at Mayo Clinic where she focused on nutrition-related proteomic and metabolic research. Her interests include understanding the exact mechanism of action of various genetic variations underlying individual predispositions to nutrition-related health outcomes. Her goal is to help all individuals prevent chronic diseases and achieve long, healthy lives through eating well.

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