Atherosclerosis Living With

If you think that you or someone else has symptoms of heart attack or stroke, call 9-1-1 immediately. Every minute matters.

Heart-healthy living, along with ongoing medical care, can help prevent complications of atherosclerosis and make for a long, healthy life. Plaque buildup can take away years of life, especially for people who have complications. For example, a heart attack takes away more than 16 years of life on average. People with heart failure lose an average of nearly 10 years.

Everyone can take steps to adopt heart-healthy living. Research shows that women who have a healthy lifestyle could expect to live 14 years longer than those who did not, while men would have 12 more years of life.

What health problems can atherosclerosis cause?

Complications of atherosclerosis may occur suddenly with no warning signs. Some conditions, such as heart attack and stroke, may lead to disability or death.

As plaque continues to grow in the arteries, so does the risk of life-threatening complications.

  • Brain conditions: Plaque buildup in arteries that supply oxygen-rich blood to the brain can lead to a transient ischemic attack or stroke. Plaque can break off or cause a blood clot that travels to the brain, also causing a stroke. Vascular dementia can result from plaque buildup that reduces blood flow to the brain. Vascular dementia causes cognitive decline beyond the normal aging process.
  • Heart problems: Coronary heart disease can cause aortic aneurysm, arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), cardiac arrest, heart failure, or a heart attack.
  • Organ damage: Plaque buildup can block blood flow to your organs, causing conditions such as chronic kidney disease. If your kidneys can’t filter your blood, you may need dialysis or a kidney transplant. Narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to your intestines (mesenteric artery ischemia) cause intestinal tissue to die or serious infections. Organ damage can be fatal.
  • Problems with your limbs: Peripheral artery disease (PAD) can cause long-term poor blood flow in your arms or legs (critical limb ischemia). Signs include sores, infections, and death of tissue (gangrene) due to lack of blood flow. A sudden drop in blood flow to your leg (acute limb ischemia) is a serious medical emergency.


Heart With Muscle Damage and a Blocked Artery
Figure A is an overview of a heart and coronary artery showing damage (dead heart muscle) caused by a heart attack. Figure B is a cross-section of the coronary artery with plaque buildup and a blood clot.
Heart Attack Wallet Card

Print out a card that lists warning signs of a heart attack and explains what to do if you’re having symptoms.

Tips for managing atherosclerosis

If you have atherosclerosis or its risk factors, work closely with your doctor to avoid serious problems, such as heart attack and stroke.

Follow your treatment plan and take all medicines regularly, as your doctor prescribes. Do not change the amount of your medicine or skip a dose unless your doctor tells you to.

To monitor your atherosclerosis risk factors, your doctor may review your 10-year risk for serious complications and also repeat the following tests:

  • Lipid panels to see if blood cholesterol levels remain at healthy levels
  • Blood sugar tests for monitoring blood sugar levels
  • Regular blood pressure checks to be sure your blood pressure is in the healthy range
Your Guide to a Healthy Heart

Get some up-to-date information and practical tips for adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Learn to take precautions while using statins

Statins are the most common medicine used to treat plaque buildup. Here are some tips to stay safe if your doctor prescribes a statin.

  • Keep taking your statin medicine as prescribed. If you started taking a statin after you recently had a heart attack, a stroke, or another complication, you should not stop taking this medicine on your own, because that can increase your risk for a repeat event or even death.
  • Ask your doctor what medicines, nutritional supplements, or foods you should avoid. Some of these can interact with statins to cause serious side effects or make them less effective. For example, grapefruit (fresh or as juice) affects how your liver breaks down some statins. 
  • Tell your doctor about any symptoms or side effects. Sometimes, people report muscle problems while taking statins. If you start having muscle pain, your doctor may order a blood test to look for muscle damage. The pain may go away if you switch to a different statin. Muscle damage with statins is rare, and your muscles may heal when you switch to a different medicine. 
  • If you are a woman who is planning to become pregnant, talk to your doctor about your options. You should stop taking statins about 3 months before getting pregnant. Also, you should not take statins if you are breastfeeding.

When to call your doctor

Talk with your doctor about how often you should schedule office visits and blood tests. Between visits, call your doctor if you get new symptoms, if your symptoms worsen, or if you have problems with your blood pressure or blood sugar.

Let your healthcare team know if you are having problems with any part of your treatment plan. Even if your symptoms get better, be sure to see your doctor for ongoing care.

Take care of your mental health

Having an atherosclerosis-related disease may cause fear, anxiety, depression, and stress. You may worry about having heart problems or making lifestyle changes that are necessary for your health. Talk with your healthcare team about how you feel and actions you can take.

  • Talk to a counselor. If you have depression or anxiety, medicines or other treatments may also help improve your quality of life.
  • Join a patient support group. This may help you adjust to living with heart disease. You can find out how other people manage similar symptoms. Your doctor may be able to recommend local support groups, or you can check with an area medical center.
  • Seek support from family and friends. Let your loved ones know how you feel. Talk with them about what they can do to help relieve your stress and anxiety.

What are the connections between COVID-19 and atherosclerosis?

People who have conditions caused by plaque buildup are more likely to have more serious symptoms if they get COVID-19. Severe COVID-19 increases the chance of needing to be hospitalized in an ICU (intensive care unit), having long-term effects, and dying from the illness. COVID-19 may make plaque buildup worse through inflammatory effects and may cause blood clots to form in blood vessels. These effects may raise the risk of serious complications, such as heart attacks or strokes, from plaque buildup.

However, scientists have seen that some people who are in the hospital for COVID-19 and taking statins or  PCSK9 inhibitor medicines for atherosclerosis seem to have a better chance of surviving. More research is needed to see whether the COVID-19 Treatment Guidelines should include these medicines. The guidelines recommend that people with COVID-19 keep taking statins or PKCS9 inhibitors if their doctors prescribed them for atherosclerosis diseases.

Learn about groups that may be at higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness.

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