Atherosclerosis What Is Atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is a common condition that develops when a sticky substance called plaque builds up inside your arteries . Disease linked to atherosclerosis is the leading cause of death in the United States. 

Atherosclerosis develops slowly as cholesterol, fat, blood cells and other substances in your blood form plaque. When the plaque builds up, it causes your arteries to narrow. This reduces the supply of oxygen-rich blood to tissues of vital organs in the body.

Atherosclerosis diagram.
Normal artery and an artery with plaque buildup.

Atherosclerosis can affect most of the arteries in the body, including arteries in the heart, brain, arms, legs, pelvis, and kidneys. It has different names based on which arteries are affected.

Reduced blood flow can lead to symptoms such as angina. If a plaque bursts, a blood clots may form that may block the artery completely or travel to other parts of the body. Blockages, either complete or incomplete, can cause complications, including heart attack, stroke, vascular dementia, erectile dysfunction, or limb loss. Atherosclerosis can cause death and disability.

Confused about terms?
Atherosclerosis is not the same as arteriosclerosis, which refers to “hardening of the arteries,” which means the arteries thicken and lose flexibility. Arteriosclerosis has several different causes. Atherosclerosis, which develops from fatty plaque buildup, is a common type of arteriosclerosis.

Plaque often starts to build up during childhood and gets worse with age. Risk factors include unhealthy cholesterol levels, unhealthy lifestyle habits, and your gene .

The good news is that most people can prevent or delay the initiation and progression of atherosclerosis by following steps for heart-healthy living.

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