Arteries are blood vessels that carry blood rich in oxygen throughout your body. They go to your brain as well as to the tips of your toes. Healthy arteries have smooth inner walls and blood flows through them easily. Some people, however, develop clogged arteries. Clogged arteries result from a buildup of a substance called plaque on the inner walls of the arteries. Arterial plaque can reduce blood flow or, in some instances, block it altogether.
Clogged arteries greatly increase the likelihood of heart attack, stroke, and even death. Because of these dangers, it is important to be aware, no matter how old you are, of the causes of artery plaque and treatment strategies to prevent serious consequences.
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Plaque that accumulates on the inner walls of your arteries is made from various substances that circulate in your blood. These include calcium, fat, cholesterol, cellular waste, and fibrin, a material involved in blood clotting. In response to plaque buildup, cells in your artery walls multiply and secrete additional substances that can worsen the state of clogged arteries.
As plaque deposits grow, a condition called atherosclerosis results. This condition causes the arteries to narrow and harden.
Although experts don’t know for sure what starts atherosclerosis, the process seems to stem from damage to the arterial wall. This damage, which enables the deposition of plaque, may result from:
High ''bad'' cholesterol and low ''good'' cholesterol. High levels of ''bad'' cholesterol, or low-density lipoprotein (LDL), are major contributors to arterial plaque formation. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Everyone also has ''good'' cholesterol, or high-density lipoprotein (HDL), circulating in the blood. HDL is believed to remove some of the bad cholesterol from plaque in clogged arteries and transport it back to the liver, where it is eliminated.
Cigarette smoke. Cigarette smoke seems to increase the rate of atherosclerosis in the arteries of the heart, legs, and the aorta -- the largest artery in the body.
Diabetes, or elevated circulating blood sugar is also a major culprit. Even people who have elevated sugars not yet at the level of diabetes, such as seen in the metabolic syndrome, also have increased risk of plaque formation.
Plaque often starts to develop during the childhood or teenage years. Then clogged arteries develop in middle age or later.
What are the dangers of arterial plaque and clogged arteries?
It depends on where arterial plaque accumulates. Clogged arteries in different parts of the body can lead to multiple medical conditions, including:
Coronary artery disease. When plaque accumulates in the arteries carrying blood to the heart, it results in coronary artery disease, or heart disease. This condition can lead to heart attacks and is one of the leading causes of death in the United States.
Carotid artery disease. The carotid arteries run up either side of your neck. They supply oxygen to your brain. The accumulation of arterial plaque in the carotid arteries can lead to stroke.
Peripheral artery disease. If plaque builds up in the blood vessels that carry blood to your legs, it can reduce the amount of oxygen delivered. The reduced blood flow can cause you to experience pain, numbness, or serious infection in your legs and feet.