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Your arteries may weaken and become less elastic, making them more susceptible to plaque buildup.


Many factors place you at risk for atherosclerosis. If atherosclerosis runs in your family , you may be at risk for hardening of the arteries. This condition, as well as other heart-related problems, may be inherited. Regular exercise is good for your heart. It keeps your heart muscle strong and encourages oxygen and blood flow throughout your body. Living a sedentary lifestyle increases your risk for a host of medical conditions, including heart disease.

High blood pressure can damage your blood vessels by making them weak in some areas. Cholesterol and other substances in your blood may reduce the flexibility of your arteries over time. Smoking tobacco products can damage your blood vessels and heart. People with diabetes have a much higher incidence of coronary artery disease CAD. Both of these can be caused by atherosclerosis and require immediate medical attention. The symptoms of a heart attack include:. Heart attack and stroke are both medical emergencies.

Your doctor will perform a physical exam if you have symptoms of atherosclerosis. A cardiologist may listen to your heart to see if you have any abnormal sounds. Your doctor will order more tests if they think you may have atherosclerosis.

Avoiding atherosclerosis: The killer you can't see

Treatment involves changing your current lifestyle to decrease the amount of fat and cholesterol you consume. You may need to exercise more to improve the health of your heart and blood vessels. Unless your atherosclerosis is severe, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes as the first line of treatment. You may also need additional medical treatments, such as medications or surgery. Aspirin is particularly effective for people with a history of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease e.

An aspirin regimen can reduce your risk of having another health event.

Atherosclerosis Topic Review

If there's no prior history of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, you should only use aspirin as a preventive medication if your risk of bleeding is low and your risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease is high. If symptoms are especially severe or if muscle or skin tissue are endangered, surgery may be necessary. With treatment, you may see improvement in your health, but this may take time.

In addition, a disturbance to the endothelium may result in the formation of a blood clot thrombus at the site of a plaque, likewise obstructing the channel or breaking loose from the site and causing a catastrophic blockage elsewhere. Atherosclerotic lesions frequently are found in the aorta and in large aortic branches. They are also prevalent in the coronary arteries , where the condition is called coronary heart disease also called coronary artery disease or ischemic heart disease.


When atherosclerosis affects the coronary arteries, which bring oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle , it can decrease the supply of blood to the heart muscle and result in chest pain known as angina pectoris. The complete occlusion of one or more coronary arteries can cause the death of a section of the heart muscle myocardial infarction , or heart attack.

Atherosclerotic lesions of the cerebral vessels may lead to formation of blood clots and stroke.

A family history of cardiovascular disease , smoking, stress, obesity , and high blood cholesterol levels, particularly in association with LDLs, are among the factors that contribute to an increased risk of developing atherosclerosis. Men develop atherosclerosis more often than women, and individuals with diabetes mellitus have a significantly higher incidence of the disease.

Certain drugs can reduce the risks associated with atherosclerosis. These include statins, which reduce the level of cholesterol and fat in the blood, as well as anticoagulants and other drugs such as aspirin , which prevent formation of blood clots. In large arteries such as the aorta or carotids, sections obstructed by atheromas can be removed surgically and replaced with synthetic materials.

Atherosclerotic plaques can also be removed from the carotid circulation by atherectomy, in which the fatty deposits are carefully removed by a tiny knife inserted into the vessel via a catheter. In the case of occluded coronary arteries, the lives of countless cardiac patients have been saved by coronary bypass surgery , in which sections of blood vessels from other parts of the body are used to route blood flow around the obstructions. All of these things have many benefits for your body, your heart, and your blood vessels. If your risk is high, you might also take medicines that lower your risk.

These include medicines to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Although the exact process is not completely understood, scientists have described three different stages of atherosclerosis that lead to clogged arteries. These stages do not necessarily occur in order, nor is there always a progression from one stage to the next.

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The fatty streak. The "fatty streak" appears as a yellow streak running inside the walls of the major arteries, such as the aorta. The streak consists of cholesterol, white blood cells, and other cellular matter. The fatty streak by itself does not cause symptoms of heart disease but can develop into a more advanced form of atherosclerosis, called fibrous plaque.

What is atherosclerosis?

The plaque. A plaque forms in the inner layer of the artery. Plaque is a buildup of cholesterol, white blood cells, calcium, and other substances in the walls of arteries.

Atherosclerosis: The New View - Scientific American

Over time, plaque narrows the artery, and the artery hardens. Plaque sometimes reduces blood flow to the heart muscle, which can cause angina symptoms. Plaque in the large artery in the neck carotid artery stenosis may block blood flow to the brain and is a common cause of transient ischemic attack sometimes called "mini-stroke" and stroke.

Stable and unstable plaque. Plaques are defined based on the risk that they will tear or rupture. Stable plaque is less likely to rupture. These plaques have a thick fibrous cap and are made up of substances that are stable and not likely to rupture. Unstable plaque is more likely to rupture. These plaques have a thin fibrous cap and are made up of substances like fats that can expand. Inflammation within the plaque can make the fibrous cap unstable and more likely to tear apart. Blocked artery. A blockage in the artery can happen if the plaque tears or ruptures.

This rupture exposes the cholesterol and tissue that was under the fibrous cap. Blood clots form in response to this rupture. The blood clot blocks the blood flow in the artery. This can cause a heart attack or stroke. This theory suggests that atherosclerosis develops as a result of repetitive injury to the inner lining of the artery.

Injury may stimulate cells to grow and divide as part of the inflammatory process. This normal, healing response to chronic injury may actually result in the growth of atherosclerotic plaque. Smoking plays a large role in the development of atherosclerosis.