Certain traits, conditions, or habits may raise your risk for carotid artery disease. These conditions are known as risk factors. The more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to get the disease. You can control some, but not all, risk factors.

The major risk factors for carotid artery disease, listed below, also are the major risk factors for coronary artery disease (CAD) and heart disease.

  • Unhealthy blood cholesterol levels. This includes high LDL cholesterol (sometimes called bad cholesterol) and low HDL cholesterol (sometimes called good cholesterol).
  • High blood pressure. Blood pressure is considered high if it stays at or above 140/90 mmHg over time.
  • Smoking. This can damage and tighten blood vessels, raise cholesterol levels, and raise blood pressure. Smoking also can limit how much oxygen reaches the body's tissues.
  • Older age. As you get older, your risk for carotid artery disease goes up. About 1 percent of adults aged 50 to 59 have major plaque buildup in the carotid arteries. In contrast, 10 percent of adults aged 80 to 89 have this problem. Before age 75, the risk is greater in men than women. However, after age 75, the risk is higher in women.
  • Insulin resistance. This condition occurs when the body can't use its own insulin properly. Insulin is a hormone that helps move blood sugar into cells where it's used. Insulin resistance may lead to diabetes.
  • Diabetes. With this disease, the body's blood sugar level is high because the body doesn't make enough insulin or doesn't use its insulin properly. People who have diabetes are four times more likely to have carotid artery disease than people who dont have diabetes.
  • Overweight or obesity. The most useful measure of overweight and obesity is the body mass index (BMI). BMI measures your weight in relation to your height and gives an estimate of your total body fat. A BMI between 25 and 29 is considered overweight. A BMI of 30 or more is considered obese. You can check your BMI using the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institutes online BMI calculator, or your doctor can check your BMI.
  • Metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is the name for a group of risk factors that raise your risk for stroke and other health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease.
  • Lack of physical activity. Lack of activity can worsen other risk factors for carotid artery disease.
  • Family history of atherosclerosis.

Having any of these risk factors doesn't mean that you will get carotid artery disease. However, if you have one or more risk factors, you can take steps to help prevent the disease.

Steps include following a healthy lifestyle and taking any medicines your doctor prescribes. (For more information, see "How Can Carotid Artery Disease Be Prevented?" below)

The amount of plaque buildup in the carotid arteries also may suggest plaque buildup in other arteries. Doctors can predict the degree of atherosclerosis in other arteries based on the thickness of the carotid arteries. Thus, people who have carotid artery disease also are more likely to have CAD.

How Can Carotid Artery Disease Be Prevented?

Taking action to control your risk factors can help prevent or delay carotid artery disease and stroke. The more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to get carotid artery disease.

Making lifestyle changes and taking prescribed medicines are important steps. For information on healthy eating plans, physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, and medicines.

Know your family history of health problems related to carotid artery disease. If you or someone in your family has this disease, be sure to tell your doctor. Also, let your doctor know if you smoke.


NHLBI