What increases my risk for atherosclerosis?

What many people may not realize is that a healthy diet rich in calcium has no correlation with the bad calcium deposits and risk for atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Other factors are at play when calcium is deposited as plaque in the arterial walls -- along with cholesterol and other substances -- in the process of atherosclerosis.

More likely, people with hardening of the arteries lack a healthy diet and regular exercise, may have a family history of heart disease that surfaces early in life or have risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or tobacco smoking.

When the innermost wall of an artery is damaged by risk factors, calcium, blood cells, fats and other cellular by-products build up. That’s when the bad calcium, known to your cardiologist as coronary calcium, becomes measurable.

Many risk factors increase the likelihood of developing atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease (also known as hardening of the arteries). These can include:

  • hypertension (also called high blood pressure)
  • diabetes
  • elevated cholesterol
  • living a sedentary lifestyle
  • smoking
  • stress
  • obesity
  • male gender
  • family history of heart disease
  • getting older
Obviously, you can control or change some of these risk factors (with or without the help of a doctor). Quitting smoking, for example, is an obvious benefit to your health. Some of these risk factors, however, cannot be changed. You cannot prevent yourself from getting older.

Likewise, some of the risk factors on this list can affect other factors on the list. For example, many people can lower their blood pressure if they quit smoking cigarettes. Also, dropping excess pounds can help control blood sugar in diabetics, can help lower blood pressure and can help lower cholesterol.

There is no single cause of atherosclerosis. Plaque accumulates in the arteries over the course of many years. However, certain factors may contribute to the development of atherosclerosis such as smoking and having high blood pressure or high cholesterol.