Atherosclerosis starts early and progresses throughout life. You can't see
or feel it, but in most of us the process is already under way.
The plaques of atherosclerosis can grow to become blood vessel blockages. If
a plaque ruptures, the sudden blood clot causes a heart attack or stroke.
Atherosclerosis is common, unpredictable, and potentially deadly. Is there
any good news? Because atherosclerosis takes decades to progress, the process
can be slowed down at any point, reducing the risk.
The heart works hard to pump blood to the entire body, and it needs
its own supply of blood to get the job done. Having an adequate supply of blood
is important because, like the rest of your body, the heart muscle needs oxygen
to stay healthy. Blood absorbs oxygen from the lungs every time you breathe,
and then the heart pumps the oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. The heart
pumps some of that oxygen-rich blood through the coronary arteries back to its
When the heart muscle has to work harder, such as during exercise, it
requires more oxygen. To meet this demand, the coronary arteries expand
(dilate), increasing blood flow and oxygen to the heart.
In coronary artery disease (CAD), plaque builds up (atherosclerosis)
on the inside walls of the coronary arteries. Plaque is made up largely of
cholesterol and other fats. People who smoke or have diabetes, high
cholesterol, or high blood pressure tend to build up more plaque than those who
do not have these risk factors. Over time, the plaque buildup on the inside of
the walls narrows the stream of blood and can restrict the artery's ability to
When the coronary arteries become narrowed by atherosclerosis, the
heart can no longer regulate the amount of blood flow that it receives. The
heart muscle may be able to get enough oxygen while you are at rest, but it may
not be able to keep up with increased oxygen demands during exercise. As a
result, the heart does not get enough oxygen, which often causes chest pain
Primary Medical Reviewer
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer
John A. McPherson, MD, FACC, FSCAI - Cardiology
May 1, 2010
WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise
May 01, 2010
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