Atherosclerosis - Causes

The exact cause of atherosclerosis is not known. Some researchers consider it to be a natural consequence of aging. But that theory does not explain the actual process of the disease. What is known is that people with certain risk factors are much more likely to develop atherosclerosis than people without those risk factors. Some risk factors are beyond a person's control. For example, some people seem to be genetically more inclined to develop atherosclerosis than other people. Also, the disorder is more common among older than younger people. A person is not able to do much about his or her heredity or the aging process.

Some risk factors, however, are under a person's control. These factors include:

  • Cigarette/tobacco smoking. Smoking increases the risk of developing atherosclerosis. It also increases the risk of dying from heart disease. Secondhand smoke may also increase risk.
  • High blood cholesterol. Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance produced naturally by the body. It also occurs in many foods, such as meat, eggs, and other animal products. A certain amount of cholesterol is needed to keep the body healthy. But high levels of cholesterol can increase the risk of atherosclerosis.
  • High triglycerides. Triglycerides (pronounced tri-GLIS-uh-ride) are a form of fat. High levels of trigylcerides have been linked with various kinds of artery disease.
  • High blood pressure. Blood pressure higher than normal (normal is measured 140 over 90) can make the heart work hard. Both the heart and arteries may become weak (see hypertension entry).
  • Physical inactivity. Lack of exercise increases the risk of atherosclerosis.
  • Obesity. Excess weight strains the heart. Both heart and arteries may be damaged (see obesity entry). Some risk factors for atherosclerosis that cannot be changed include:
  • Heredity. People whose family members have had atherosclerosis are at risk for the disorder.
  • Gender. Before age sixty men are more likely to have atherosclerosis than women. After sixty, the risk is equal for men and women.
  • Age. The risk for atherosclerosis increases with age.
  • Diabetes mellitus. Many diabetics die from heart attacks caused by atherosclerosis.

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