The walls of the arteries throughout the body can harden over time, a condition called arteriosclerosis. Marked by stiff, thickened blood vessels that restrict blood flow to tissues and organs, the condition can start in childhood and progress more rapidly as a person ages. Arteriosclerosis can occur anywhere in the body and may arise from damage to the inner layers of the arteries.
Atherosclerosis is the most common type of arteriosclerosis, and the terms are often used interchangeably. In this condition, a buildup of fats, cholesterol, and waste products settles in the inner lining of the arteries, forming a deposit called a plaque. If a piece of this plaque breaks off and travels through the bloodstream, it can eventually block an artery and even break open as a rupture. A rupture causes sticky blood cells called platelets to form clots at the site of the blood vessel injury, further narrowing the artery. Many people do not experience atherosclerosis symptoms until an artery can no longer supply enough blood to tissues and organs, triggering a heart attack or a stroke.
Another type of arteriosclerosis is Monckeberg’s atherosclerosis, also called medial calcific sclerosis. This condition causes calcium deposits on the walls of arteries and veins. The calcified areas of blood vessels become rigid, but do not cause narrowing of the artery.
Arteriolosclerosis or arteriolar sclerosis involves the thickening of the inner and middle layers of the walls of small arteries or arterioles. Hyaline arteriolosclerosis is common in people with diabetes or hypertension. Hyperplastic arteriolosclerosis may arise from malignant hypertension, extremely high blood pressure.
Mild arteriosclerosis does not typically present any symptoms. When symptoms appear, they generally indicate a moderate to severe case and differ according to which arteries are impacted. Signs may include
- Pressure or pain in the chest (angina)
- Drooping facial muscles
- Leg pain when walking
- Sudden weakness or numbness in the arms or legs
- Difficulty speaking or slurred speech
- Kidney failure
- Erectile dysfunction or pain around the genitals
The exact cause of arteriosclerosis is unknown, but much research implicates blood vessel dysfunction due to inflammation. Other factors may also injure or damage the inner layer of an artery, such as
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Insulin resistance or diabetes
- Smoking and other tobacco sources
- Inflammation from autoimmune diseases or unknown causes
Arterial stiffness increases as everyone ages, but the association between arteriosclerosis and mortality is almost twice as high in women as in men. Research confirms that sex steroid hormones and their receptors are at least partially responsible for cardiovascular outcomes. Other risk factors include stress, an unhealthy diet, a sedentary lifestyle, and a family history of early cardiovascular disease.
A doctor will diagnose arteriosclerosis based on family and medical histories, a physical exam, and test results. During the exam, the physician may listen for an abnormal sound called a bruit, which can indicate impeded blood flow. They may also check for a weak or absent pulse in the leg or foot. Blood tests assess the levels of cholesterol, sugar, certain fats, and proteins in the blood. An electrocardiogram or EKG detects the timing and strength of the heart’s electrical activity. Other possible tests include a chest X-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), angiography, stress test, and ankle index.
Medical experts believe that arteriosclerosis is treatable and preventable. Treatment goals include lowering the risk of blood clot formation and plaque buildup, relieving symptoms, and preventing related diseases. People can achieve these objectives with a combination of lifestyle adjustments and medication. Doctors commonly recommend that individuals with arteriosclerosis adopt a heart-healthy diet and aim for a healthy weight. Physicians also encourage regular, moderate physical activity, stress management, and quitting smoking. Statin treatment to lower cholesterol, treatments to lower blood pressure, and controlling blood sugar levels in people with diabetes may slow the condition’s progression.
Severe arteriosclerosis may require a medical procedure or surgery. Percutaneous coronary intervention opens narrowed heart arteries to relieve blocked blood flow that can cause chest pain. Coronary artery bypass grafting is an open heart surgery that takes blood vessels from other areas of the body to divert blood flow around constricted arteries. Carotid endarterectomy removes plaque buildup from arteries in the neck to restore blood flow to the brain.
When to Seek Help
Early diagnosis and treatment can halt the progression of arteriosclerosis and may stave off a stroke, heart attack, or another medical emergency. People at risk should be alert to signs such as chest pain or leg numbness, which could indicate inadequate blood flow. If a person suspects arteriosclerosis, they should contact a physician immediately.
FatCamera / Getty Images