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Heart Disease Health Center

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Overcoming Cardiovascular Disease

If you've been diagnosed with stroke, heart attack, angina or PAD, you may be in shock. But the right medical care can prevent future problems.

Understanding Arteriosclerosis continued...

Your arteries are flexible tubes that carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body. Blood brings oxygen and nutrients to all of your organs and muscles.

Arteriosclerosis develops when fats, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances in the blood begin to stick to the inner walls of the arteries. These deposits are called plaques. They build up and narrow your blood vessels. They also make your arteries more brittle and rigid than healthy arteries.

As the arteries narrow, it's harder for the blood to get to the cells that need it. "The artery becomes like a clogged supply line," says Ross.

The problem gets worse if the plaque tears or breaks. Your body's natural response is to form blood clots. But these clots narrow the artery even further. They might block it off entirely. Clots can also detach and travel through your bloodstream, causing a blockage elsewhere in your body.

Genes can play a role in the development of arteriosclerosis. But treatable conditions -- such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes -- are common causes.

A Systemic Disease, Affecting the Entire Body

Arteriosclerosis sets the stage for many grave medical problems.

  • Angina develops if there is a partial blockage of the arteries that supply the heart and muscle. Like any organ, the heart needs a good supply of blood to work. If it doesn't get that blood, you'll feel squeezing pain in the chest and other symptoms. If your symptoms are predictable -- occurring only when you're under emotional or physical stress -- it's considered stable angina. Unstable angina is more dangerous. It is more severe and occurs even when you are resting. Also, some people may not even feel their angina, such as those with diabetes.
  • Heart attacks (or myocardial infarctions) occur if the artery supplying the heart is partially or completely blocked. The heart might start to pump erratically because it isn't getting the blood it needs. This can be life threatening. If the blood supply to the heart is cut off for more than a few minutes, the tissue can be permanently damaged.
  • Strokes and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs or "mini strokes") can result from blockages in the arteries that supply blood to the brain. They can also occur when a blood clot from elsewhere in the body -- like the heart -- moves through the bloodstream and lodges in an artery that feeds the brain. In a TIA, the blockage only lasts just a few minutes at most. In a stroke, the brain cells are starved of oxygen for a longer time. This can cause more permanent damage or death.
  • Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) occurs if the plaque, narrows or clot blocks the arteries that supply blood to the extremities, especially the legs. This causes painful cramping, especially after you've been walking or exercising.

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