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Jefferson Health

Home of Sidney Kimmel Medical College

What Causes Arterial Plaque and How to Determine Your Personal Risk

Heart health is important to overall health—here’s how to know if you’re at risk for arterial plaque buildup.

Many people know that poor nutrition and a sedentary lifestyle can lead to heart health problems later in life. When it comes to your heart, preventive care early in life is key to staying healthy. If you have a strong family history of heart attacks or heart disease, or have risk factors such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes or high cholesterol, it’s a good idea to ask your doctor about your risk of arterial plaque buildup. 

We talked with cardiologist Dr. David Shipon, about why it’s important to see a specialist to diagnose any arterial plaque early and help you develop a lifestyle that will help prevent heart attacks, strokes and heart failure long-term. 

What is Arterial Plaque? 

Arterial plaque occurs when cholesterol builds up in the inner lining of the artery. This buildup can happen in any artery in the body, from head to toe, and can develop into a condition called atherosclerosis, which can, in turn, lead to coronary artery disease, angina, heart attack or potentially heart failure. 

“Cholesterol enters the lining of the artery and causes an inflammatory cascade, which injures the arterial lining, making it easier for more cholesterol to enter the artery and cause the plaque to grow,” says Dr. Shipon.  

What Are the Risk Factors for Arterial Plaque? 

High blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, smoking, stress and anxiety, a sedentary lifestyle and a family history of heart disease are all key risk factors for arterial plaque buildup. 

“A patient with a strong family history of heart disease or heart attacks, especially in family members under 50 years old, is a lot more likely to develop these risk factors and have arterial plaque in their body. That is why it’s important to assess your risk of heart disease and potentially get tested for arterial plaque as young as age 35,” says Dr. Shipon. After the age of 35, coronary artery disease and heart attacks become much more likely as plaque continues to develop. 

Testing for Arterial Plaque 

There are a few tests that help identify plaque or heart disease. The heart calcium score is an excellent test for any patient with heart risks, including low-risk patients with strong family histories of heart disease. 

Arterial plaque can also be found in the body when a patient is receiving a CT scan for another health issue, indicating the patient may be at high-risk for heart disease. Your healthcare provider can help refer you to a cardiologist for further testing or treatment. 

For some at-risk patients, plaque and cardiac concerns can remain unidentified. In these cases, cardiologists and other providers can look for subclinical plaque, evidence of a plaque buildup that hasn’t caused negative health effects yet. 

Why It’s Important to Know Your Risk 

“Once a patient knows they have plaque and are at risk for heart disease or a significant heart event, we can work on lowering their risk together,” says Dr. Shipon. “That’s why it’s important to catch arterial plaque early so we can start to implement a preventive program to stabilize the arteries, reduce the amount of plaque buildup and prevent a future heart attack.”  

In order to reduce plaque and cholesterol buildup, cardiologists like Dr. Shipon advise patients to eat a heart-healthy diet, practice stress management, exercise regularly and take their doctor-recommended medications and supplements.  

“We focus on preventive care to help our patients before they experience a heart attack, stroke or heart failure. But it’s never too late to start working on your heart health,” says Dr. Shipon. If you’ve already experienced a heart attack or have a heart condition, your cardiologist can recommend cardiovascular rehabilitation at any of the six Jefferson Health facilities across the Delaware Valley, where it’s possible to get back to your functional capacity and even improve your quality of life. 

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From the Experts, Healthy You