Arteriosclerosis | Atherosclerosis | MedStarHealth

Hardened or narrowed arteries

Also known as hardening of the arteries, arteriosclerosis occurs when the walls of the arteries stiffen over time and narrow because of a buildup of plaque.

Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, and other cells in the blood that deposit along the inner walls of the arteries. As more is deposited over time, the passage through which blood can flow becomes narrower, and less blood reaches the rest of your body. This can increase your risk of kidney failure, heart attack, or stroke. If a clump of plaque breaks away from the wall of the artery and enters the bloodstream, it can form a clot. A clot can block the flow of blood, resulting in organ failure and heart attack.


Hardening and narrowing of the arteries occurs slowly over time. People typically don’t notice symptoms until blood supply to a limb or organ is blocked, or until they have a heart attack or stroke. The rate at which the arteries narrow depends on where the plaque deposits form, a person’s overall health, and other lifestyle factors such as smoking, which is a major contributor to atherosclerosis.

Many people think of this condition as a heart problem, but it can affect any artery in the body. A common type that usually occurs in the legs is peripheral artery disease (PAD), also known as peripheral vascular disease (PVD).

Depending on where in the body the disease develops, you may experience mild symptoms, such as:

Development of high blood pressure also can be a sign of hardening of the arteries.


What causes arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis?

The exact cause is not fully known, but medical research has established that inflammation is a major contributor to the development of atherosclerosis. Inflammation can trigger plaque to rupture resulting in blot clots that cause a heart attack or stroke. A family history of heart disease, unhealthy lifestyle choices, and certain medical conditions can increase the risk of developing atherosclerosis.

Damage to the inner layer of an artery may be the starting point for hardening of the arteries. The damaged area can turn into a haven for plaque to collect, thickening the walls of the artery and narrowing the passageway for blood.

Arterial wall damage can be caused by:

Managing chronic conditions, achieving a healthy weight, and quitting tobacco will help reduce your risk for developing atherosclerosis. MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute specialists are leading an international study in the United States, Europe, and Japan to better understand the risks associated with fatty plaque in the blood. More than 1,500 patients are enrolled in the study, which we hope will give us more insight into predicting future heart and vascular problems in people who previously were labeled low- to moderate-risk.



Your physician will work with you to develop a customized care plan. The treatment options include:

  • Lifestyle modifications: Quit smoking, weigh management, eating a healthy diet, and an exercise plan.
  • Medications: To lower the levels of bad cholesterol (LDL), lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and to help reduce the formation of the platelet clumps.
  • Surgery: Angioplasty or cardiac surgery if there is significant coronary artery blockage.

Additional information

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