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Frequently Asked Questions

What is atherosclerosis?

Short Answer

Atherosclerosis is a narrowing and hardening of the arteries caused by a buildup up fatty deposits.

Long Answer

Arteries are blood vessels that carry oxygenated blood from the lungs to the heart and then to other parts of the body. Atherosclerosis occurs when plaque builds up along inner arterial walls restricting blood flow. Plaque consists of fatty substances, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances.

Illustration of an artery affected by atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis comes from the Greek words athero, meaning gruel or paste and sclerosis, meaning hardening. Scientists don't know exactly how or why atherosclerosis starts. It can begin in childhood and usually exhibits no symptoms until middle age or older. As it develops, plaque builds up inside the inner lining of large and medium-sized arteries. Risk factors for atherosclerosis include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking.

As the disease progresses, one of two things can happen:

  • Plaque buildup significantly reduces blood flow in one or more arteries.
  • A plaque ruptures causing a blood clot to form inside the artery.

Related Conditions

Depending on the arteries affected, atherosclerosis can result in the following conditions.

Coronary Heart Disease
When arteries supplying blood to the heart become narrowed due to a buildup in plaque, it can cause a feeling of pressure or pain in the chest area called angina. A heart attack occurs when a plaque ruptures and a blood clot is lodged in a coronary artery blocking the flow of blood to the heart.
Carotid Artery Disease
The carotid arteries extend up the sides of the neck to the brain. When blood flow to the brain is temporarily blocked, it can result in a transient ischemic attack (TIA or "mini-stroke"). There is no brain damage from a TIA but if left untreated it can lead to a stroke which can cause brain damage.
Peripheral Artery Disease
Peripheral artery disease (PAD) occurs when blood flow to the head, kidneys, stomach, arms, or legs is reduced. It usually affects blood flow to the legs and patients experience pain when walking or climbing stairs.
Sexual Dysfunction
Decreased blood flow to the genital area can lead to sexual dysfunction in men and women.

Treatment

A healthy diet and exercise can help prevent or control atherosclerosis. Treatment for high blood pressure (hypertension) and high cholesterol levels are both important in reducing risks.

Your doctor may prescribe anti-platelet medication to help prevent the formation of blood clots that can lead to heart attacks or strokes. Over-the-counter low-dose aspirin (75 mg or 81 mg) is commonly prescribed. For patients allergic to aspirin, an alternative medication is Clopidogrel (Clopivas, Plavix, Clavix).

Other medications may be prescribed to treat specific conditions such as erectile dysfunction and angina (nitrate medication).

Additional Information

What Is Atherosclerosis?
The U.S. National Institutes of Health website discusses atherosclerosis causes, risk factors, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, prevention and related topics.
Atherosclerosis Directory
WebMD has a great deal of information about heart disease and other conditions related to atherosclerosis as well as a slide show, quizzes, news archive, and member community.
Atherosclerosis
The American Heart Association provides an overview of atherosclerosis and the site has information on cardiovascular diseases and stroke as well as an Interactive Cardiovascular Library.
Atherosclerosis
The Mayo Clinic summarizes atherosclerosis symptoms, tests and diagnosis, treatments, and more.
Atherosclerosis
Britain's National Health Service explains atherosclerosis, its symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment and prevention along with related videos.
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