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
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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.
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