Ways You Can Prevent Atherosclerosis

No matter what age you are, there are some ways you can prevent atherosclerosis. Addressing your high cholesterol and triglyceride levels can help you to prevent the development of atherosclerosis and the damage it can cause to your cardiovascular system.

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Atherosclerosis, also known as “hardening of the arteries,” occurs when cholesterol and other lipids begin to accumulate on the inner walls of damaged blood vessels. This buildup leads to the formation of a waxy thickening in the vessel, known as a plaque. While atherosclerosis itself does not produce any symptoms, the damage that atherosclerosis does to the circulatory system can produce serious health conditions, including a heart attack, peripheral vascular disease, and even death.

Fortunately, you can take measures to prevent—or slow the progression—of atherosclerosis. This typically involves making some changes to your lifestyle. Because high cholesterol levels can lead to the development of atherosclerosis, the same lifestyle modifications you apply to prevent your cholesterol levels from becoming too high can also be used towards preventing atherosclerosis.

Change Your Diet

You can make many changes to your diet in order to prevent—or at least slow—the progression of atherosclerosis. Making these changes will also help you keep your cholesterol levels in check:

  • Reduce the amount of saturated fat you consume, and avoid foods containing trans fats entirely. Trans fats are often found in commercially prepared foods, like cookies and chips. Instead, consume foods that are higher in unsaturated fat, which is found in foods like nuts, olives, and fatty fish.
  • Moderate consumption of alcohol—no more than two glasses of alcohol if you’re a man, and no more than one glass of alcohol if you’re a woman—can also lower your risk for heart disease. But don’t overdo this: Too much alcohol can actually be damaging to your health. Alcohol has been shown to modestly lower cholesterol levels. Although this includes wine, beer, and hard liquor, the polyphenols found in wines—like red wine—are especially heart-friendly when consumed in the recommended amounts.
  • Consume a diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables. Many chemicals have been identified in these foods—including phytosterols and polyphenols—that can help lower your lipids and possibly reduce inflammation.
  • Limit your consumption of refined sugars. Cakes, candies, and other high-sugar foods can raise your triglycerides and lower your HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol)—both ​of which could also promote the formation of atherosclerosis. Instead, consume whole-grain foods. These foods are higher in fiber, which can actually help slightly lower your LDL cholesterol.

Stop Smoking

Smoking can raise your cholesterol levels and also irritate the inner lining, or endothelium, of your vessels. This is a recipe that can establish the foundation for the formation of plaque in your arteries. By stopping smoking now, you can reduce your LDL cholesterol, raise your HDL cholesterol and lower your risk of developing atherosclerosis.

Exercise Regularly

Exercising for at least 30 minutes on most days a week can also prevent death as a result of atherosclerosis. Although this link is not exactly clear, it may have something to do with reduced LDL cholesterol levels, increased HDL cholesterol, and weight loss, all of which can decrease your risk of developing atherosclerosis and subsequent cardiovascular disease. Although aerobic exercises (such as swimming, jogging, brisk walking, and cycling) have been the most studied, almost any form or exercise (including lifting weights and low-impact exercises such as yoga), are also beneficial.

Pay Attention to Your Health

Take care of any other health conditions you may have. Some medical conditions, besides high cholesterol, can promote atherosclerosis if left untreated, including:

  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Hypothyroidism
  • High blood pressure

By keeping your weight, your cholesterol, and blood sugars within normal ranges, you can also reduce plaque formation in your vessels.

You should also know your family health history—especially if you have parents or other close relatives that have developed very high cholesterol levels or cardiovascular disease early in life. Your healthcare provider can watch for the development of cardiovascular risk factors—and make suggestions on changes to your health regimen - to help slow the formation of atherosclerosis.

If your lipid levels are not within healthy ranges—despite making changes to your lifestyle – your healthcare provider may decide to place your medication to lower your lipids. Some medications, such as statins, not only lower your lipid levels—they also have also been shown to lower your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. 

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  • Lam JYT. Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy.

  • Dipiro JT, Talbert RL. Pharmacotherapy: A Pathophysiological Approach, 9th ed 2014.

By Jennifer Moll, PharmD
Jennifer Moll, MS, PharmD, is a pharmacist actively involved in educating patients about the importance of heart disease prevention.