Hardening of the arteries, also called atherosclerosis, occurs when fat, cholesterol, and other substances build up in the walls of arteries. These deposits are called plaques. Over time, these plaques can block the arteries and cause problems throughout the body.
Lifestyle changes will reduce your risk of hardening of the arteries. Thing you can do include:
Quit smoking. This is the single most important change you can make to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Avoid fatty foods. Eat well-balanced meals that are low in fat and cholesterol. Include several daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Adding fish to your diet at least twice a week may be helpful. However, do not eat fried fish.
Limit how much alcohol you drink. Recommended limits are one drink a day for women, two a day for men.
Get regular physical activity. Exercise with moderate intensity (e.g., brisk walking) 5 days a week for 30 minutes a day if you are at a healthy weight. For weight loss, exercise for 60 - 90 minutes a day. Talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise plan, especially if you have been diagnosed with heart disease or you have ever had a heart attack.
The 2007 United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) guidelines on screening for high blood pressure recommend screening for all adults:
Every 2 years, if their blood pressure was less than 120/80 mmHg at their most recent reading
Once a year if their blood pressure was 120 - 139/80 - 89 mmHg
Notes: This guideline is currently being updated.
If your blood pressure is high, it is important for you to lower it and keep it under control.
Most people should keep their blood pressure below 140/90 mmHg. However, you doctor may recommend a different target depending on your age and other health conditions.
If you have diabetes, kidney disease, or have had a stroke or heart attack, your blood pressure may need to be lower. Ask your doctor what your blood pressure should be.
Your doctor may want you to take medicine for abnormal cholesterol levels or for high blood pressure if lifestyle changes do not work. This will depend on:
Whether you have heart disease or other blood flow problems
Whether you smoke or are overweight
Whether you have diabetes or other heart disease risk factors
Your doctor may suggest taking aspirin or another medicine to help prevent blood clots from forming in your arteries. These medicines are called antiplatelet drugs. DO NOT take aspirin without first talking to your doctor.
Losing weight if you are overweight and reducing blood sugar if you have diabetes or pre-diabetes can help reduce the risk of developing atherosclerosis.
Hardening of the arteries cannot be reversed once it has occurred. However, lifestyle changes and treating high cholesterol levels can prevent or slow the process from becoming worse. This can help reduce the chances of having a heart attack and stroke as a result of atherosclerosis.
In some cases, the plaque is part of a process that causes a weakening of the wall of an artery. This can lead to a bulge in an artery called an aneurysm. Aneurysms can break open (rupture). This causes bleeding that can be life threatening.
Screening for Lipid Disorders in Adults, Topic Page. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspschol.htm. Accessed May 13, 2014.
Screening for High Blood Pressure in Adults, Topic Page. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspshype.htm. Accessed May 13, 2014.
Genest J, Libby P. Lipoprotein disorders and cardiovascular disease. In: Bonow RO, Mann DL, Zipes DP, Libby P, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 47.
Libby P. The vascular biology of atherosclerosis. In: Bonow RO, Mann DL, Zipes DP, Libby P, eds. Braunwald's Heart Disease: A Textbook of Cardiovascular Medicine. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 43.
Michael A. Chen, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.