Atherosclerosis -- sometimes called hardening of the arteries -- can slowly narrow and harden the arteries throughout the body. When atherosclerosis affects the arteries of the heart, it’s called coronary artery disease.
Coronary artery disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans. Most of these deaths are from heart attacks, caused by sudden blood clots in the heart’s arteries.
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Atherosclerosis can create life-threatening blockages, without you ever feeling a thing. Since we’re all at risk for coronary artery disease, it’s worth learning more about this common and deadly complication of atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis and Coronary Artery Disease: The Cold Facts of Hard Arteries
A look at the numbers for coronary artery disease is enough to give anyone chest pain:
More than 15,800,000 Americans have known coronary artery disease.
About 8 million of them have had heart attacks.
Around 500,000 people will die of coronary artery disease this year. More than a million will have a heart attack.
One-third of all deaths in Americans older than 35 are due to coronary artery disease.
After age 40, about 50% of men and one-third of women can expect to eventually have coronary artery disease.
Millions more people have atherosclerosis that is severe, but has yet to cause symptoms.
The death rate from coronary artery disease is higher in men than in women. After menopause, though, women's rates rise but they never completely catch up with men. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in women, just as in men.
Causes of Coronary Artery Disease: Atherosclerosis, Atherosclerosis, and Atherosclerosis
Many of us have heard of "clogged arteries" leading to heart attacks. How does atherosclerosis cause coronary artery disease?
First, the coronary arteries’ smooth interior surface becomes damaged. High blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, cigarette smoking, and diabetes are the most common culprits.
LDL -- or "bad" cholesterol -- then starts to build up in the coronary artery’s wall. The body sends a "clean-up crew" of white blood cells and other cells to the toxic site.
Over years, continuing buildup of cholesterol and the body’s response to it create a plaque. A plaque is a bump on the artery wall that can obstruct blood flow.
Atherosclerosis and Coronary Artery Disease: Plaques’ Sneak Attacks
Atherosclerosis plaques in the coronary arteries can behave in several ways:
Plaques can grow slowly, never blocking the artery or causing clots.
They can expand significantly to block the blood flow in a coronary artery. This usually causes no symptoms, even when the artery is significantly blocked.
Other times, the blockage does cause symptoms. Called stable angina, this is most commonly chest pain with exertion that goes away with rest. This is not a heart attack.
A plaque can rupture. The unstable material inside the plaque is exposed to the bloodstream. It causes blood to rapidly clot inside the coronary artery.