What is atherosclerosis?

Also known as "hardening of the arteries," atherosclerosis is a disease in which the arteries are hardened and narrowed as a result of plaque, which has built up along the inside of the artery walls. The disease is a chief contributor to cardiovascular disease — the leading cause of death among men and women in the United States. According to the American Heart Association 2001 Heart and Stroke Statistical Update, atherosclerosis accounts for nearly 75 percent of all deaths from cardiovascular disease. It is a common and potentially serious form of arteriosclerosis, a class of diseases identified by the hardening of arterial walls. While some forms of arteriosclerosis occur naturally over time, atherosclerosis involves an unnatural buildup of plaque, which comprises fats (lipids), cholesterol (lipoproteins), calcium and other materials. These masses of plaque (atheromas) may eventually lead to a partial or complete blockage of the blood flow through the artery, leading to the failure of cells and organs throughout the body as they are starved of oxygen. Cholesterol

Atherosclerosis may begin as early as childhood, but it is the advanced stages of this condition that are the most dangerous later in life. These advanced stages can cause a narrowing (
stenosis) of the artery and speed the rate at which the artery is blocked or closed altogether (occlusion). If the affected artery is one of the coronary arteries (located on the surface of the heart), then a lack of oxygen-rich blood to the heart (cardiac ischemia) could cause coronary artery disease (CAD) and, consequently, increase an individual’s risk of the following:

Plaque Rupture: The release of an unstable plaque's contents (e.g., fatty particles) into the bloodstream. This occurs after the thin coating of the unstable plaque has been stripped away. In addition, as the plaque builds and hardens through a process called calcification, pieces of the plaque may rupture (plaque rupture) and stimulate the development of blood clots. Clots or broken-off pieces of clots traveling through the blood vessels can completely block an artery, causing an embolism.

Atherosclerosis can also affect arteries other than the coronary arteries. For instance, blocked
carotid arteries in the neck or cerebral arteries in the brain can lead to a stroke, and inadequate blood flow to the lower extremities can cause peripheral arterial disease—a condition that can lead to poor circulation, sores and gangrene.

Over five million Americans have been diagnosed with atherosclerosis, and at least that many people have the disease but do not know it. Hereditary factors, gender and age play a role in whether someone will develop the disease. Men, African-Americans and individuals over the age of 65 are especially prone to developing advanced atherosclerosis. In addition, a greater risk is faced by the following people, particularly if they have more than one risk factor:

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