Atherosclerosis is dangerous because it's so stealthy. This process of
narrowing and hardening of the arteries occurs over decades, usually without
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
It’s dramatic when someone has a heart attack on television or in the movies. But in real life, symptoms can be more subtle and difficult to identify. And because heart attack and angina symptoms are so similar, it may be hard to tell what's going on.
But knowing the differences -- and the reasons behind them -- can result in seeking treatment sooner, and living longer.
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.
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
Blockages to both kidneys' arteries can also cause blood pressure to go
sky-high, in a condition called renal artery stenosis.
"Atherosclerosis in the renal arteries can be important and is most
likely underdiagnosed," says Silverman. "When these vessels are also
pounded by high blood pressure, the effects of atherosclerosis are
Tiny arteries carry blood to the nerves of the eye. If an atherosclerotic
plaque breaks off and blocks the central retinal artery, an "eye
stroke" results, causing blindness in one eye.
Your Sex Organs
Men need strong blood flow into the penis to get and maintain firm
erections. Arteries in the penis can get damaged by atherosclerosis, too, and
can't deliver the necessary blood flow. Erectile dysfunction can