Skip to content

Heart Disease Health Center

Font Size

Your Arterial Lifeline

Are you at risk for hidden complications of atherosclerosis?
By
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.

Recommended Related to Heart Disease

Is It a Heart Attack or Angina?

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.

Read the Is It a Heart Attack or Angina? article > >

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. 

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 compounded."

Your Eyes

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 result.

Today on WebMD

x-ray of human heart
A visual guide.
atrial fibrillation
Symptoms and causes.
 
heart rate graph
10 things to never do.
Compressed heart
Article
 
empty football helmet
Article
red wine
Video
 
eating blueberries
Article
Simple Steps to Lower Cholesterol
Slideshow
 
Inside A Heart Attack
SLIDESHOW
Omega 3 Sources
SLIDESHOW
 
Salt Shockers
SLIDESHOW
lowering blood pressure
SLIDESHOW