You may know atherosclerosis as hardening of the arteries. These four conditions or behaviors greatly increase your risk of developing atherosclerosis.

You may not have heard of the term atherosclerosis, but you probably know it by another name: hardening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis is a buildup of plaque - a waxy, fatty substance - in the arteries. This plaque can rupture or fissure, causing blood clots to form on the exposed surface and may lead to heart attack or stroke. Plus, you may not even know you have atherosclerosis.

Sometimes the first symptom of atherosclerosis is a heart attack or stroke or even sudden coronary death. Cholesterol in the blood combines with other substances, such as fat and calcium, and forms plaque. But since atherosclerosis usually doesn't have symptoms, how do you know if you have it?

Diagnosing Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis can be diagnosed in a number of ways, including blood tests, electrocardiograms, CT scans and stress tests. During a physical exam, a doctor may actually hear the presence of plaque which disrupts flow by placing a stethoscope on a large artery.

Forms of atherosclerosis include coronary artery disease, which is atherosclerosis in arteries that feed the heart; carotid artery disease, or atherosclerosis in arteries that supply blood to the brain; and peripheral arterial disease, where arteries that supply blood to the arms, legs and pelvis are blocked.

Risk Factors

Diagnosing atherosclerosis is less important than getting to the underlying problems that caused the disease. The good news is that many of these risk factors are reversible and preventable.

  • High cholesterol - High cholesterol and atherosclerosis often go hand-in-hand. High levels of saturated fat in the diet lead to higher LDL cholesterol levels ("bad" cholesterol), which can increase the risk of atherosclerosis. But healthy levels of HDL cholesterol (the "good" kind) can decrease risk.
  • Diabetes - Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are characterized by an excess of blood sugar. Too much sugar - aka glucose - in the bloodstream produces some chemicals that damage artery wall cells and reduces other chemicals that promote increased blood flow.
  • Smoking - Smoking and secondhand smoke damage blood vessels, which directly increases the risk of atherosclerosis. They also lower HDL cholesterol levels and raise blood pressure. åÊSmoking is the single most potent and most preventable cause of atherosclerosis and vascular events.
  • Obesity - Obesity is thought to promote plaque formation in many ways. It contributes to other risk factors, like high cholesterol, HTN and diabetes, and causes chronic inflammation that injures blood vessels and leads to plaque formation.

Treatment and Prevention

Exercise is an important element of treatment and prevention. It's closely linked to diet and weight, but exercise is also important for vascular health. It reduces the burden and impact of atherosclerosis by reducing stroke and heart attack risk, and it can help with blood pressure and weight and glucose control.

Diet is important in relation to obesity. The emphasis on diet should really be more about reducing caloric intake and maintaining a good body weight and less about food selection.

Atherosclerosis starts early. There's no question that it takes years to develop, but the rate of progression is rarely linear; there can be periods of rapid growth and slow growth. Investing in risk management is a good idea at any age and should begin as early as possible.

Your heart health is important to us. That's why the Coliseum Heart Institute is committed to providing middle Georgians with the latest in cardiac services. Board certified cardiologists, cardiovascular surgeons and a staff trained to treat and diagnose heart disease, make a superior team dedicated to your health. When time is of the essence, our Accredited Chest Pain Center seal can provide reassurance that Coliseum Medical Centers is a hospital you can trust to provide the best possible outcomes in heart care.

Coliseum's free online heart risk assessment is an incredibly simple and fast way to begin measuring your heart health. Visit www.iheartcoliseum.com to take our free online quiz!

This content originally appeared on Sharecare.com.