Atherosclerosis vs. Arteriosclerosis: What’s the Difference?

When discussing risk, these terms are often used interchangeably.

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When your doctor says words like “arteriosclerosis” and “atherosclerosis,” it’s understandable to respond with a “huh?” — especially when they sound very similar like these. It’s important to always ask your doctor for clarification about something you don’t understand, but since you’re here, we’ll break it down for you.

Arteriosclerosis is a condition that occurs when arteries narrow and harden, which makes them weak. Eventually, they get so weak that they can no longer do their very important job: Circulating blood throughout your body. This narrowing of the arteries can make it hard for your organs to get the blood that they need.

Atherosclerosis is the buildup of fat, cholesterol, and other substances on your blood vessel walls. Atherosclerosis is actually a type of arteriosclerosis — the most common type — so they are often used interchangeably in discussion with your doctor about risk, says Lawrence Phillips, MD, cardiologist at NYU Langone Health.

How Atherosclerosis Affects the Body

Atherosclerosis can affect arteries all over the body. There are different names for atherosclerosis depending on what part of the body if affects, including:

  • Carotid artery disease
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Renal artery stenosis
  • Peripheral artery disease

“The location and the organ that's impacted by the atherosclerosis is all related to the blood flow from the heart to that particular organ,” says Dr. Phillips. “So, we can see heart attacks or chest pain when it's the arteries to the heart. We can see neurological symptoms, such as difficulty moving or difficulty speaking when it's the arteries to the brain. Or we can see pain with walking or acute leg pain when it's the arteries that are supplying the blood to the legs.”

Understanding Your Atherosclerosis Risk

Untreated atherosclerosis can lead to serious complications, which is why it’s important to talk to your doctor about your risk and how you can modify it.

“Atherosclerosis is a progressive disease. What it looks like in your 20s is different than what it looks like in the same person in their 50s or 60s,” says Dr Phillips. “That difference can be mitigated by lifestyle changes.”

The main treatment for atherosclerosis is lifestyle changes, but you may also need medicines or medical procedures, depending on your risk. These treatments, along with ongoing medical care, can help you live a healthier life.

“We encourage all of our patients to make changes as soon as possible and to keep them over the long term to decrease their risk,” says Dr. Phillips.