Hardening of the arteries

Hardening of the arteries, which is known as arteriosclerosis or atherosclerosis in medical terms, is a disease of the arteries. Arteries are blood vessels which are found throughout the body. The disease causes narrowing or blockages in certain arteries due to buildups over time. The affected organs do not receive sufficient blood or oxygen.

The consequences of arteriosclerosis vary, depending on which organ is affected. For example, it can cause angina pectoris or a heart attack in the heart, or a stroke in the brain. Arteriosclerosis occurs as a result of buildups of cholesterol, calcium and inflammatory cells on the inner walls of the arteries. These buildups are called plaques and they develop slowly over the years. Factors which contribute to a buildup include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, excessive weight, diabetes as well as minor infections in the vessel walls, such as during a cold.

The risk of hardening of the arteries increases progressively from around the age of 40. Men are affected by the disease in their youth more frequently than women. However, this balances out in old age. The best way to counteract arteriosclerosis is with a healthy lifestyle:  balanced diet, no smoking, sufficient exercise and regular relaxation.

The symptoms of arteriosclerosis manifest differently, depending on which organ is affected. Arteriosclerosis in the coronary vessels causes chest pain or a feeling of tightness in the chest during exertion.  If the cerebral arteries are affected, this can cause symptoms of paralysis, vision problems or short absences. With increasing age, cerebral arteriosclerosis can also develop into dementia. Sudden obstruction of a cerebral artery causes a stroke. Arteriosclerosis in the legs manifests in pain and pale skin. The pain occurs primarily when walking and forces those affected to stop time and again. Therefore, arteriosclerosis in the legs is also known as intermittent claudication. Find out more about this in the peripheral arterial occlusive disease section. If the circulatory disorder is severe, this causes tissue death, typically in the toes.

Different examinations are carried out to identify arteriosclerosis. They include an ECG, an ultrasound examination of the vessels, a contrast agent x-ray of the vessels (angiography) as well as blood pressure measurement in the arms and the legs.

When treating arteriosclerosis, the focus is on treating the risk factors to prevent the disease from progressing. This includes lowering the blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar level if the patient has diabetes. Blocked vessels can be widened or bridged. In certain cases, the impingement can also be surgically removed. More information on the different options is available in the endarterectomy, coronary artery surgery and balloon dilation sections.