What Causes Plaque in the Arteries?

Medically Reviewed By John A. Moawad, MD, FACS
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Plaque buildup is progressive and can begin as early as childhood. There are many risk factors that can accelerate the buildup and increase your risk of complications. Following a balanced diet and living a healthy lifestyle are the best ways to reduce these risks. This article discusses what plaque buildup in the arteries is, what the causes and risk factors for plaque buildup are, and how you can reduce the plaque in your arteries.

What is plaque buildup in the arteries?

Hands holding a fake heart
Tatjana Zlatkovic/Stocksy United

Plaque buildup in your arteries, or atherosclerosis, consists of fatty deposits made up of:

  • cholesterol
  • fatty substances
  • cellular waste products
  • calcium
  • fibrin

There is a constant flow of blood through your arteries that brings nutrients and oxygen to your organs. When plaque builds up in the arteries, it causes them to become clogged. When this happens, they lose their elasticity and narrow.

Over time, this plaque can harden, which causes the artery to become blocked. This, in turn, hinders or stops the blood flow through the arteries.

This buildup tends to start with some kind of damage to the arteries. Certain risk factors — such as genetics, medical conditions, and unhealthy lifestyle habits — can lead to this damage.

Complications from plaque buildup in arteries

One major complication of plaque buildup in the arteries is the risk that part of the plaque will rupture. If this happens, a blood clot will form at the site. This is your body’s natural reaction to try to heal the area where the rupture occurred. However, the clot can then block the blood flow through the artery. The lack of blood flow can starve your body and organs of vital oxygen and nutrients, which can cause a heart attack or stroke.

In addition to this risk of blood clots, there are other complications that can result from plaque buildup in your arteries. These complications include:

Learn more about the symptoms of heart disease here.

What are the causes and risk factors for plaque in the arteries?

Plaque buildup in the arteries is a progressive condition that can begin as early as childhood. The exact cause of this is not completely known. However, researchers believe that the process begins with damage to the artery.

Possible causes of this damage include:

Although the cause may be unknown, there are risk factors that can play a role in the progression of the buildup in your arteries.

Risk factors for plaque buildup in the arteries

The following factors may increase your risk of plaque buildup in the arteries:

Certain components in foods can also accelerate the plaque buildup in your arteries. These components include:

  • saturated fats
  • trans fats
  • salt, or sodium

How can you reduce plaque in the arteries?

Although you may not be able to completely prevent plaque buildup in your arteries, you can reduce it, slow the progression, and reduce your risk of future complications.

One of the best ways to reduce your risk of complications from plaque buildup is to adopt a healthy lifestyle.

Some ways you can do this include:

  • not smoking
  • eating a balanced diet
  • being active
  • trying to maintain a moderate weight
  • limiting your alcohol intake
  • managing stress

Important foods for heart health

Certain foods and beverages can help you maintain a healthy heart. These include:

  • oily fish
  • fruits and vegetables
  • legumes, nuts, and seeds
  • whole grains
  • tea
  • garlic
  • foods containing vitamin E

Visit our hub to learn more about heart health.

Summary

Plaque in your arteries is a progressive condition that can begin in childhood. The exact cause is unknown, but there are certain risk factors that can accelerate the buildup.

You can reduce the risk of complications and slow the buildup by living a healthy lifestyle and eating a balanced diet.

Contact your doctor if you are at risk of heart disease or have any questions about plaque buildup in your arteries.

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Medical Reviewer: John A. Moawad, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2022 Apr 13
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