7 Things That Cause Plaque Buildup in the Arteries

  • You’ve Got the Power
    Plaque buildup in the arteries—called atherosclerosis—causes the arteries to narrow, increasing the risk for heart attack and stroke. But you have the power to prevent, stop, and possibly even reverse plaque buildup with lifestyle changes. Find out what causes dangerous buildup and how to correct it.

  • Understand the Process
    Although the process is complex and yet to be fully understood, experts believe that atherosclerosis starts slowly when certain factors damage the inner layers of the arteries. Plaque may begin to build in these damaged areas. With time, plaque hardens and begins to narrow the arteries and restrict the normal flow of fresh, oxygen-rich blood. This can lead to heart attack or stroke.

  • Cause #1: Smoking
    Smoking can damage blood vessels, raise cholesterol levels, and elevate blood pressure—all factors linked to atherosclerosis. To avoid plaque buildup due to smoking, get help to kick the habit once and for all. Even occasional smoking can hurt your arteries.

  • Cause #2: “Bad” Cholesterol
    High LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol is a major contributor to atherosclerosis. It circulates in the blood, carrying cholesterol to your arteries, where plaque is formed. Eating a diet low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and trans fat can help reduce this bad cholesterol.

  • Cause #3: High Blood Pressure
    Consistently high blood pressure can weaken and damage arteries, opening the door to plaque buildup. High blood pressure has no symptoms, so it’s important to get checked. If your blood pressure is higher than 140/90 mm Hg, talk with your doctor about strategies to lower it.

  • Cause #4: High Blood Sugar
    High amounts of blood sugar can greatly increase atherosclerosis. That’s because excess sugar in the blood can eventually contribute to plaque forming in your arteries. If you have blood sugar problems, work with your doctor to keep them under control.

  • Cause #5: Alcohol Consumption
    Drinking too much alcohol can raise the level of fats in the blood and lead to high blood pressure. To keep your intake at healthy levels, experts recommend that men consume no more than two drinks a day. Women should limit their intake to one drink a day.

  • Cause #6: Excess Weight
    Excess body fat plays a big part in atherosclerosis. Being overweight or obese increases the risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Studies show that losing just 5% to 10% of overall body weight can help.

  • Cause #7: Lack of Exercise
    Lack of physical activity can contribute to, or aggravate, other factors that can cause plaque buildup. These include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity. Experts suggest getting at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise—like brisk walking—most days.

7 Things That Cause Plaque Buildup in the Arteries
  1. Atherosclerosis. Academy of Family Physicians. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/atherosclerosis.printerview.all.html
  2. Do You Know the Health Risks of Being Overweight? National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.  http://win.niddk.nih.gov/publications/health_risks.htm
  3. The Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/effects
  4. Losing Weight. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/losing_weight/index.html
  5. Atherosclerosis. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure/WhyBloodPressureMatters/Why-Blood-Pressur...
  6. Alcohol and Heart Disease. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/More/MyHeartandStrokeNews/Alcohol-and-Heart-Disease_UCM_305...
  7. Diabetes and Cholesterol. University of Illinois. http://www.mckinley.illinois.edu/handouts/diabetes/diabetes_cholesterol.htm
  8. Who is at Risk for Atherosclerosis? National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/atherosclerosis/atrisk.html
  9. What Causes Atherosclerosis? National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/atherosclerosis/causes.html
  10. Who is at Risk for Heart Disease? National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/hdw/atrisk.html
  11. High Cholesterol -- Why Lower Your LDL? National Institute on Aging. http://www.nihseniorhealth.gov/highbloodcholesterol/whyloweryourldl/01.html
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Last Review Date: 2019 Aug 31
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