What causes atherosclerosis?

Plaque buildup and subsequent hardening of the arteries restricts blood flow in the arteries, preventing your organs and tissues from getting the oxygenated blood they need to function.

Common causes of hardening of the arteries

High cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy, yellow substance that’s found naturally in your body and also in certain foods you eat. This substance can increase in your blood and clog your arteries. It becomes a hard plaque that restricts or blocks blood circulation to your heart and other organs.


Eating foods high in fat may also lead to plaque buildup.


As you age, your heart and blood vessels work harder to pump and receive blood. Your arteries may weaken and become less elastic, making them more susceptible to plaque buildup.

Who is at risk for atherosclerosis?

Many factors place you at risk for atherosclerosis. Some risks can be prevented, while others cannot.

Family history

If atherosclerosis runs in your family, you may be at risk for hardening of the arteries. This condition as well as other heart-related problems may be inherited.

Lack of exercise

Regular exercise is good for your heart. It keeps your heart muscle strong and encourages oxygen and blood flow throughout your body. Living a sedentary lifestyle increases your risk for a host of medical conditions, including heart disease.


Eating foods high in fat and cholesterol raises your risk for atherosclerosis.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure can damage your blood vessels by making them weak in some areas. Cholesterol and other substances in your blood may reduce the flexibility of your arteries over time.


Smoking tobacco products can damage your blood vessels and heart.


People with diabetes have a much higher incidence of coronary artery disease.

Risks to develop atherosclerosis:

  1. Age (the advancement of age increases risks
  2. Smoking
  3. Consumption of foods containing abundant fats
  4. Low levels of physical activity
  5. Being overweight or obese
  6. Overconsumption of alcohol (in a chronic manner)
  7. High arterial pressure, and high levels of cholesterol
  8. Having a family history for developing atherosclerosis
  9. Certain ethnicities, such as people from the Caribbeans, and Afro-Americans face higher risks for arterial hypertension and diabetes mellitus, and hence, they face higher risks for developing atherosclerosis.

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:

  • coronary heart disease the main arteries that supply your heart (the coronary arteries) become clogged with plaques
  • angina short periods of tight, dull or heavy chest pain caused by coronary heart disease, which may precede a heart attack
  • heart attacks where the blood supply to your heart is blocked, causing sudden crushing or indigestion -like chest pain that can radiate to nearby areas, as well as shortness of breath and dizziness
  • strokes where the blood supply to your brain is interrupted, causing the face to droop to one side, weakness on one side of the body, and slurred speech
  • transient ischaemic attacks (TIAs) where there are temporary symptoms of a stroke peripheral arterial disease where the blood supply to your legs is blocked, causing leg pain when walking

Who's at risk of atherosclerosis?

Exactly why and how arteries become clogged is unclear.

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

  • increasing age
  • smoking
  • an unhealthy, high-fat diet
  • lack of exercise
  • being overweight or obese
  • regularly drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
  • other conditions, including high blood pressure , high cholesterol and diabetes
  • a family history of atherosclerosis and CVD
  • being ofsouth Asian,Africanor African-Caribbean descent

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.

You can also read more specific advice about preventing CVD.

Medically Reviewed by a doctor on 2 Feb 2018
Medical Author: Dr. med.