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Heart Disease Health Center

Your Arterial Lifeline

Are you at risk for hidden complications of atherosclerosis?
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WebMD Feature

Atherosclerosis is dangerous because it's so stealthy. This process of narrowing and hardening of the arteries occurs over decades, usually without any symptoms.

Heart attacks and strokes caused by atherosclerosis are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. But diseases caused by atherosclerosis also lead to chronic pain, kidney failure, blindness, and even impotence.

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It's time to shine some light on these hidden complications of atherosclerosis -- and to learn how to prevent them.

Diseases Caused by Atherosclerosis: A Hidden Enemy

Out of sight, often out of mind, atherosclerosis does its slow, dirty work on our arteries. How does it happen?

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL or "bad" cholesterol) damages arteries, building up in their walls. Over years, the body's response to the fatty deposits creates a plaque, or a bump in the artery wall.

"Over years, these atherosclerotic plaques can grow until they significantly hinder blood delivery to the tissues," says Mark Silverman, MD, emeritus professor of medicine at Emory University.

"Alternately, a plaque can suddenly rupture," causing a blood clot to form, blocking off the artery completely. "Within hours, the tissue that depends on the artery for blood dies," says Silverman.

High blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, smoking, and a high-fat diet low in fruits and vegetables all tend to make atherosclerosis worse.

Plaques grow slowly and blood flow is preserved for years, so atherosclerosis causes no early symptoms. "When symptoms finally do occur, the blockages are severe and usually irreversible," explains Silverman.

Diseases Caused by Atherosclerosis: Beyond the Heart

The entire body is dependent on arteries for oxygenated blood. "Because arteries everywhere can be affected, there is no organ system atherosclerosis can't reach," says Lori Mosca, MD, MPH, PhD, director of preventive cardiology at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. "And atherosclerosis, when present, is usually widespread."

Take this short trip through the arteries of the body to consider the less well-known complications of atherosclerosis.

Your Kidneys

Arteries carry blood to the kidneys, where our entire blood volume is filtered more than 30 times a day. If atherosclerosis slows the flow, chronic kidney disease can result.  This can eventually lead to end-stage renal disease, or total kidney failure requiring dialysis. 

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