Atherosclerosis is a condition in which arteries become clogged with fatty substances called plaques, or atheroma.

These plaques cause the arteries to harden and narrow, restricting the blood flow and oxygen supply to vital organs, and increasing the risk of blood clots that could potentially block the flow of blood to the heart or brain.

Atherosclerosis doesn't tend to have any symptoms at first, and many people may be unaware they have it, but it can eventually cause life-threatening problems such as heart attacks and strokes if it gets worse.

Health risks of atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis can lead to a number of serious conditions, collectively known as cardiovascular disease (CVD). 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

Risk factors for atherosclerosis

Known risk factors for developing atherosclerosis include:

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