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How Is Atherosclerosis Treated?

Treatments for atherosclerosis may include heart-healthy lifestyle changes, medicines, and medical procedures or surgery. The goals of treatment include:

  • Relieving symptoms
  • Reducing risk factors in an effort to slow or stop the buildup of plaque
  • Lowering the risk of blood clots forming
  • Widening or bypassing plaque-clogged arteries
  • Preventing atherosclerosis-related diseases

Heart-Healthy Lifestyle Changes

Your doctor may recommend heart-healthy lifestyle changes if you have atherosclerosis. Heart-healthy lifestyle changes include heart-healthy eating, physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking, and managing stress.

Heart-Healthy Eating

Your doctor may recommend heart-healthy eating, which should include:

  • Whole grains
  • Fruits, such as apples, bananas, oranges, pears, and prunes
  • Vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, and carrots
  • Legumes, such as kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, and lima beans
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy products, such as skim milk
  • Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, tuna, and trout, about twice a week

When following a heart-healthy diet, you should avoid eating:

  • A lot of red meat
  • Palm and coconut oils
  • Sugary foods and beverages

Two nutrients in your diet make blood cholesterol levels rise:

  • Saturated fat—found mostly in foods that come from animals
  • Trans fat (trans fatty acids)—found in foods made with hydrogenated oils and fats such as stick margarine; baked goods such as cookies, cakes, and pies; crackers; frostings; and coffee creamers. Some trans fats also occur naturally in animal fats and meats.

Saturated fat raises your blood cholesterol more than anything else in your diet. When you follow a heart-healthy eating plan, only 5 percent to 6 percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fat. Food labels list the amounts of saturated fat. To help you stay on track, here are some examples:

If you eat:

Try to eat no more than:

1,200 calories a day

8 grams of saturated fat a day

1,500 calories a day

10 grams of saturated fat a day

1,800 calories a day

12 grams of saturated fat a day

2,000 calories a day

13 grams of saturated fat a day

2,500 calories a day

17 grams of saturated fat a day

Not all fats are bad. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats actually help lower blood cholesterol levels. Some sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are:

  • Olive, canola, peanut, safflower, and sesame oils
  • Peanut butter
  • Nuts and seeds, such as walnuts
  • Avocados
  • Corn, sunflower, and soybean oils
  • Salmon and trout
  • Tofu


You should try to limit the amount of sodium that you eat. This means choosing and preparing foods that are lower in salt and sodium. Try to use low-sodium and “no added salt” foods and seasonings at the table or while cooking. Food labels tell you what you need to know about choosing foods that are lower in sodium. Try to eat no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day. If you have high blood pressure, you may need to restrict your sodium intake even more.

Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension

Your doctor may recommend the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan if you have high blood pressure. The DASH eating plan focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other foods that are heart healthy and low in fat, cholesterol, and sodium and salt.

The DASH eating plan is a good heart-healthy eating plan, even for those who don’t have high blood pressure. Read more about DASH.


Try to limit alcohol intake. Too much alcohol will raise your blood pressure and triglyceride levels, a type of fat found in the blood. Alcohol also adds extra calories, which may cause weight gain.

Men should have no more than two drinks containing alcohol a day. Women should have no more than one drink containing alcohol a day. One drink is:

  • 12 ounces of beer
  • 5 ounces of wine
  • 1½ ounces of liquor

Physical Activity

Regular physical activity can lower many atherosclerosis risk factors, including LDL or “bad” cholesterol, high blood pressure, and excess weight. Physical activity also can lower your risk for diabetes and raise your HDL or “good” cholesterol, which helps prevent atherosclerosis.

Everyone should try to participate in moderate-intensity aerobic exercise at least 2 hours and 30 minutes per week or vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise for 1 hour and 15 minutes per week. Aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, is any exercise in which your heart beats harder and you use more oxygen than usual. The more active you are, the more you will benefit. Participate in aerobic exercise for at least 10 minutes at a time spread throughout the week.

Talk with your doctor before you start a new exercise plan. Ask your doctor how much and what kinds of physical activity are safe for you.

Read more about physical activity at:

Maintaining a Healthy Weight

Maintaining a healthy weight can lower your risk for atherosclerosis. Body mass index (BMI) measures your weight in relation to your height and gives an estimate of your total body fat. To figure out your BMI, check out the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s online BMI calculator or talk to your doctor.

  • A BMI below 18.5 is a sign that you are underweight.
  • A BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is in the normal range.
  • A BMI between 25.0 and 29.9 is considered overweight.
  • A BMI of 30.0 or higher is considered obese.

A general goal to aim for is a BMI of less than 25. Your doctor or health care provider can help you set an appropriate BMI goal.

Measuring waist circumference helps screen for possible health risks. If most of your fat is around your waist rather than at your hips, you’re at a higher risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. This risk may be high with a waist size that is greater than 35 inches for women or greater than 40 inches for men. To learn how to measure your waist, visit Assessing Your Weight and Health Risk. For more information about losing weight or maintaining your weight, visit Aim for a Healthy Weight.

Quitting Smoking

If you smoke or use tobacco, quit. Smoking can damage and tighten blood vessels and raise your risk for atherosclerosis. Talk with your doctor about programs and products that can help you quit. Also, try to avoid secondhand smoke. If you have trouble quitting smoking on your own, consider joining a support group. Many hospitals, workplaces, and community groups offer classes to help people quit smoking.

For more information about how to quit smoking, visit Smoking and Your Heart.

Managing and Coping With Stress

Learning how to manage stress, relax, and cope with problems can improve your emotional and physical health. Stress management techniques include:

  • Being physically active
  • Listening to music or focusing on something calm or peaceful
  • Performing yoga or tai chi
  • Meditating


Sometimes lifestyle changes alone aren’t enough to control your cholesterol levels. For example, you also may need statin medications to control or lower your cholesterol. By lowering your blood cholesterol level, you can decrease your chance of having a heart attack or stroke. Doctors usually prescribe statins for people who have:

  • Heart disease or have had a stroke
  • High LDL cholesterol levels
  • Diabetes

Doctors may discuss beginning statin treatment with people who have an elevated risk for developing heart disease or having a stroke.

Your doctor also may prescribe other medications to:

  • Lower your blood pressure
  • Lower your blood sugar levels
  • Prevent blood clots, which can lead to heart attack and stroke
  • Prevent inflammation

Take all medicines as your doctor prescribes. Don’t cut back on the dosage unless your doctor tells you to do so. If you have side effects or other problems related to your medicines, talk with your doctor. You should still follow a heart-healthy lifestyle, even if you take medicines to treat your atherosclerosis.

Medical Procedures and Surgery

If you have severe atherosclerosis, your doctor may recommend a medical procedure or surgery.

Percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), also known as coronary angioplasty, is a procedure that’s used to open blocked or narrowed coronary (heart) arteries. PCI can improve blood flow to the heart and relieve chest pain. Sometimes a small mesh tube called a stent is placed in the artery to keep it open after the procedure.

Coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) is a type of surgery. In CABG, arteries or veins from other areas in your body are used to bypass or go around your narrowed coronary arteries. CABG can improve blood flow to your heart, relieve chest pain, and possibly prevent a heart attack.

Bypass grafting also can be used for leg arteries. For this surgery, a healthy blood vessel is used to bypass a narrowed or blocked artery in one of the legs. The healthy blood vessel redirects blood around the blocked artery, improving blood flow to the leg.

Carotid endarterectomy is a type of surgery to remove plaque buildup from the carotid arteries in the neck. This procedure restores blood flow to the brain, which can help prevent a stroke.

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Last Updated: September 22, 2015
Last Reviewed: August 4, 2014