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Who Is at Risk for Carotid Artery Disease?

Certain traits, conditions, or habits may raise your risk for carotid artery disease. These conditions are known as risk factors. The more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to get the disease. Some risk factors you can control, but others you can't.

The major risk factors for carotid artery disease, listed below, also are the major risk factors for coronary heart disease (also called coronary artery disease) and peripheral arterial disease.

  • Unhealthy blood cholesterol levels. This includes high LDL cholesterol (sometimes called “bad” cholesterol) and low HDL cholesterol (sometimes called “good” cholesterol).
  • High blood pressure. Blood pressure is considered high if it stays at or above 140/90 mmHg over time. If you have diabetes or chronic kidney disease, high blood pressure is defined as 130/80 mmHg or higher. (The mmHg is millimeters of mercury—the units used to measure blood pressure.)
  • Smoking. Smoking can damage and tighten blood vessels, lead to unhealthy cholesterol levels, and raise blood pressure. Smoking also can limit how much oxygen reaches the body's tissues.
  • Insulin resistance. This condition occurs if the body can't use its own insulin properly. Insulin is a hormone that helps move blood sugar into cells where it's used as an energy source. Insulin resistance may lead to diabetes.
  • Diabetes. With this disease, the body's blood sugar level is too high because the body doesn't make enough insulin or doesn't use its insulin properly. People who have diabetes are four times more likely to have carotid artery disease than people who don't have diabetes.
  • Overweight or obesity. The terms "overweight" and "obesity" refer to body weight that's greater than what is considered healthy for a certain height.
  • Metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is the name for a group of risk factors that raise your risk for stroke and other health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease. The five metabolic risk factors are a large waistline (abdominal obesity), a high triglyceride (tri-GLIS-er-ide) level (a type of fat found in the blood), a low HDL cholesterol level, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar. Metabolic syndrome is diagnosed if you have at least three of these metabolic risk factors.
  • Lack of physical activity. Lack of physical activity can worsen some other risk factors for carotid artery disease, such as unhealthy blood cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, diabetes, and overweight or obesity.
  • Unhealthy diet. An unhealthy diet can raise your risk for carotid artery disease. Foods that are high in saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, sodium (salt), and sugar can worsen other carotid artery disease risk factors.
  • Older age. As you get older, your risk for carotid artery disease increases. Genetic or lifestyle factors cause plaque to build up in your arteries as you age. Before age 75, the risk is greater in men than women. However, after age 75, the risk is greater in women.
  • Family history of atherosclerosis.

Having any of these risk factors doesn't guarantee that you'll develop carotid artery disease. However, if you know that you have one or more risk factors, you can take steps to help prevent or delay the disease.

Steps include following a healthy lifestyle and taking medicines as your doctor prescribes. (For more information, go to “How Can Carotid Artery Disease Be Prevented?”)

If you have plaque buildup in your carotid arteries, you also may have plaque buildup in other arteries. People who have carotid artery disease also are at increased risk for coronary heart disease.

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Last Updated: November 1, 2010