Heart and Vascular Health What Is Atherosclerosis, or Hardening of the Arteries? By Heart and Vascular Institute, August 21, 2015 Atherosclerosis, also called hardening of the arteries or artereosclerosis, is a common medical condition that can raise your risk of heart disease. By learning about your risks and understanding how to make heart-healthy choices, you can lower your chances of developing this condition. What Is Atherosclerosis? You might not think about them very often, but your arteries do an important job. When they are smooth, flexible, and not clogged, blood can flow through them easily, bringing oxygen and nutrients to your organs and tissues. This keeps your body on track and working the right way. Atherosclerosis happens when plaque builds up on your artery walls. Plaque is made up of cholesterol, fatty deposits, calcium, and other substances in your blood. When plaque builds up, it can make your arteries hard, narrow, or blocked. This can lead to serious, even life-threatening problems, including: Heart attack Stroke Peripheral artery disease (PAD), a condition that happens when blood flow to your arms, legs, or pelvis becomes blocked What Are the Symptoms of Atherosclerosis? Many people with atherosclerosis don’t know they have it. When symptoms do happen, they can include: Chest pain Heart attack, which can be life-threatening Stroke symptoms like dizziness or weakness Leg, arm, or pelvic pain Who Is at Risk for Atherosclerosis? Atherosclerosis can happen slowly over time. As you get older, your risks get higher. Some conditions and habits that can speed up plaque build-up include: High cholesterol High blood pressure Smoking Diabetes Being overweight or obese Not getting regular exercise Having an unhealthy diet Preventing Atherosclerosis and Staying Healthy You can lower your risks by making heart-healthy choices, including: Eating a heart-healthy diet Staying at a healthy weight Getting regular exercise Quitting smoking Talk to your doctor about what is right for you, and how you can stay on track with heart-healthy habits. Learn more by visiting UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute online. Learn more about your risk factors by attending a free community heart screening.