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Atherosclerosis - Topic Overview

What is atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis, sometimes called "hardening of the arteries," occurs when fat (cholesterol) and calcium build up inside the lining of the artery wall, forming a substance called plaque. Over time, the fat and calcium buildup narrows the artery and blocks blood flow through it.

Atherosclerosis can happen in all arteries. If you have atherosclerosis in one of your arteries, there is a good chance that you have atherosclerosis in other blood vessels throughout your body.

What problems does atherosclerosis cause?

Coronary artery disease. When atherosclerosis affects the arteries that supply blood to the heart, the coronary arteries, it can restrict blood flow to the heart muscle.

Heart attack. Plaque, caused by atherosclerosis, is surrounded by a fibrous cap. This fibrous cap may tear or rupture if blood suddenly flows faster or if the artery suddenly narrows. A tear or rupture tells the body to repair the injured artery lining, much as it might heal a cut on the skin, by forming a blood clot to seal the area. A blood clot that forms in an artery can completely block blood flow to the heart muscle and cause a heart attack. See a picture of how atherosclerosis can cause a heart attack camera.gif.

Stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA). When atherosclerosis affects the arteries that supply blood to the brain, it may cause a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke.

Peripheral arterial disease. Atherosclerosis can affect arteries in other parts of the body, such as the pelvis and legs, causing poor circulation.

Abdominal aortic aneurysm. Atherosclerosis can make the walls of the aorta weak. The aorta is the large artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body.

How is atherosclerosis treated?

A major part of treating atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease involves lifestyle changes (such as quitting smoking) and medicines to help reduce high cholesterol, control high blood pressure, and manage other things that increase a person's risk of heart attack, stroke, and other complications.

Reversing atherosclerosis

If you think of atherosclerosis as a response to injury, the buildup of fibrous plaque can be reversed by removing the source of injury. In the case of high cholesterol, by reducing the amount of LDL cholesterol in your arteries and increasing the amount of HDL—which removes cholesterol that is already in your artery walls—you can actually reverse atherosclerosis. The ability to reverse atherosclerosis helps explain why treating high cholesterol can reduce the risk of further complications from atherosclerosis.

How does atherosclerosis happen?

Although the exact process is not completely understood, scientists have described three different stages of atherosclerosis that lead to clogged arteries. These stages do not necessarily occur in order, nor is there always a progression from one stage to the next.

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