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Atherosclerosis is a disease in which plaque builds up on the insides of your arteries, the blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood to your heart and other parts of your body. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances found in the blood. Over time, plaque hardens and narrows your arteries reducing the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your organs and other body parts. This can lead to serious problems, including heart attack, stroke, or even death. Atherosclerosis can affect any artery in the body.


Coronary artery disease (CAD) occurs when plaque builds up in the coronary (heart) arteries.


Carotid artery disease occurs when plaque builds up in the carotid arteries (the arteries that supply blood and oxygen to your brain).


Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) occurs when plaque builds up in the major arteries of the legs, arms, and pelvis.


Major risk factors
  • High blood cholesterol levels
  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • Insulin resistance, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome
  • Obesity or being overweight
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Age
  • Family history of early heart disease
Signs & Symptoms
Atherosclerosis usually doesn't cause signs and symptoms until it severely narrows or totally blocks an artery. Many people don't know they have the disease until they have a medical emergency, such as a heart attack or stroke. Other signs and symptoms depend on which arteries are narrowed or blocked.


Your doctor will diagnose atherosclerosis based on your medical and family histories, your risk factors, and the results of a physical exam and diagnostic tests. Treatments for atherosclerosis may include lifestyle changes, medicines, and medical procedures and surgery. Lifestyle changes include following a healthy eating plan, increasing physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking, and reducing stress. Taking steps to control your risk factors can help prevent or delay atherosclerosis and its related diseases. These steps include making lifestyle changes and/or taking medicines as prescribed by your doctor.
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WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) patient advocacy organization with thousands of members nationwide, including women heart patients and their families, health care providers, advocates and consumers committed to helping women live longer, healthier lives. WomenHeart supports, educates and advocates on behalf of the nearly 48 million American women living with or at risk of heart disease. Our programs are made possible by donations, grants and corporate partnerships.

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WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease is a founding partner of The Heart Truth Red Dress campaign. The Heart Truth and Red Dress are trademarks of HHS.