What is Atherosclerosis?

By  , Expert Content
Apr 05, 2012

Atherosclerosis is a disease in which plaque is formed inside the arteries. Arteries are the type of blood vessels that take oxygen-rich blood from the heart to all parts of your body. Plaque formed in arteries is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other elements present in the blood. The build-up of plaque in the arteries occurs over many years. The plaque hardens slowly and causes the arteries to lose their elasticity. It also causes narrowing of the artery. This leads to reduction in the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your organs and other parts of your body.

Atherosclerosis has become an epidemic, which affects almost everyone. It usually starts in young adults (in 20s) and increases with age. The exact cause of atherosclerosis is not known, but factors that increase the risk of atherosclerosis include:

  • Family history of atherosclerosis.
  • High blood levels of LDL cholesterol.
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure).
  • Smoking and alcohol consumption.
  • Male sex.
  • Diabetes.
  • Being obese/overweight.
  • Eating high fat diet.
  • Race.
  • Sedentary lifestyle.

Atherosclerosis is considered as an important problem as it can lead to serious problems including heart attack, stroke or even death.

Atherosclerosis-Related Diseases

Atherosclerosis can affect any artery in the body. Some of the arteries that when affected can cause significant problem include heart, brain, arms, legs, pelvis, eyes and kidneys. Some of the common problems that develop based on the type of arteries that are affected include:

  • Coronary Heart Disease: Coronary heart disease (CHD) or coronary artery disease has become a leading cause of death in both men and women. Coronary heart disease (CHD) or coronary artery disease is caused due to plaque build-up inside the coronary arteries. These arteries provide oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle. The heart muscle needs a constant supply of oxygen-rich blood to function appropriately and interruption in the blood supply can cause damage to the heart muscle. Depending on the severity of narrowing, you may have angina (chest pain) or a heart attack. Narrowing of the arteries limits the flow of blood to the heart muscle and causes chest pain. If the plaque ruptures (break open), it can lead to formation of blood clot on the surface of the plaque in the artery. If the clot is big, it can completely block blood flow through the artery and cause heart attack.
  • Carotid Artery Disease: Carotid artery disease is caused due to plaque build-up inside the carotid arteries. These arteries take oxygen-rich blood to your brain from the heart. If blood flow to your brain is reduced or blocked, it can cause stroke.
  • Peripheral Arterial Disease: Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is caused due to formation of plaque in the major arteries that supply oxygen-rich blood to your legs, arms and pelvis. Narrowing or blockage of these arteries can cause symptoms such as numbness, pain and, sometimes, ulcers in the limbs.

Treatment for atherosclerosis includes lifestyle changes, medicines and some medical procedures.

Lifestyle changes along with treatment can prevent complications and deaths from atherosclerosis-related diseases.


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