What causes blocked arteries?

Updated March 23, 2017

Plaque build-up is a build-up of cholesterol, which collects in your arteries. This build-up begins early, sometimes in your teenage years, and is a slow, silent progression of coronary disease. Blocked arteries are the leading cause of death in the United states and contribute to incidents such as heart attack, stroke, blood clots and peripheral arterial disease. Even while the progression of blocked arteries (atherosclerosis) can be slow, if a plaque (plug of cholesterol) breaks loose, it can travel to the heart, lungs or brain, causing life-threatening problems. See link in Resources.


Plaque build-up begins in your early years, usually because of a diet high in fat and low in fruits and vegetables. If you regularly eat fatty foods, such as hamburgers loaded with mayonnaise, you are putting yourself at risk of cholesterol build-up. Other habits and high risk indicators, such as smoking, drinking to excess, not enough physical exercise, becoming obese around your abdomen (the "spare tire"), developing diabetes, high stress, untreated high blood pressure and blood cholesterol, are other causes that contribute to coronary disease. See link in Resources.


These consequences are potentially severe, if not life-threatening, as untreated cholesterol build-up can lead to heart attacks and/or strokes. Plaques in your leg arteries can block or slow blood flow in your legs--this can cause pain when you walk. If this disease becomes severe enough, you could develop an infection from a leg wound. Since blood flow in your legs is compromised, your wound will heal more slowly. If it doesn't heal, your doctor may order your leg amputated. If a plaque of cholesterol breaks loose from the artery wall, and begins to travel up toward your heart, lungs or brain, your life is threatened. If this plaque gets lodged in an artery in your leg or in your lung, you have a "pulmonary embolism," which can be life-threatening. These embolisms require immediate medical attention, with hospitalisation and blood-thinning medications. See link in Resources.


You may have heard television advertisements about taking one baby aspirin (81 milligram) a day, which helps to prevent the formation of blood clots. Talk to your doctor about beginning this regimen; do not start taking a daily dose of aspirin without doing this because you may have other conditions. Other treatments include changing your diet, eating less fatty (red) meats, increasing your intake of lean meats such as chicken and fish, fibre and fresh fruits and vegetables. Begin to cook with canola oil or olive oil, both of which are low in trans fats and saturated fats. If necessary, your doctor will prescribe medications that will slow the formation of cholesterol. Decrease the level of stress in your life by adding exercise; stop smoking and decrease your alcohol intake. If your plaque build-up has begun to cause obvious coronary symptoms, your doctor may decide to remove blockages with angiography, angioplasty or putting a stent in your blocked artery. If you have more than one blocked artery near your heart, you may be a candidate for a bypass, which is major surgery. See link in Resources.

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About the Author

Genevieve Van Wyden began writing in 2007. She has written for “Tu Revista Latina” and owns three blogs. She has worked as a CPS social worker, gaining experience in the mental-health system. Van Wyden earned her Bachelor of Arts in journalism from New Mexico State University in 2006.