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You are here : 3-RX.com > Medical Encyclopedia > Diseases and Conditions > Atherosclerosis


Alternate Names : Arteriosclerosis, Hardening of the Arteries

Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors | Symptoms & Signs | Diagnosis & Tests | Prevention & Expectations | Treatment & Monitoring

Atherosclerosis refers to fatty deposits formed under the inner lining of the blood vessels. The walls of the vessels become thick and less elastic. The thickened areas are called plaque.

What is going on in the body?

Atherosclerosis occurs when fatty substances, cholesterol, cellular waste products, calcium, and other materials build up on the inside lining of the arteries. The buildup is more likely to be in parts of the artery that have been injured. It usually occurs where the artery bends or branches. Once plaque builds up, it may cause the cells in the artery lining to make chemicals that cause more plaque buildup.

Two problems can result from the plaque.

  • First, the blood vessel can become narrow, preventing blood flow to the area served by the artery. For example, if an artery to the heart becomes 80% to 90% blocked, a person can develop chest pain.
  • Second, the plaque can rupture and send a blood clot streaming through the artery. A blood clot that goes to other parts of the body is called an embolus. The embolus can be deposited in a smaller area of the artery or in another artery, completely cutting off the blood supply. This blockage can cause a heart attack, stroke, pulmonary embolus, or other serious medical problem.
  • What are the causes and risks of the disease?

    There are several factors that increase a person's risk of developing atherosclerosis, such as:

  • cigarette smoking and secondhand smoke
  • diabetes
  • high blood cholesterol, especially a high level of LDL, the bad carrier for cholesterol
  • high blood pressure
  • high levels of triglycerides in the blood
  • increased age
  • lack of exercise
  • male gender
  • obesity


    Next section


    Atherosclerosis: Symptoms & Signs

    Author: William M. Boggs, MD
    Reviewer: Eileen McLaughlin, RN, BSN
    Date Reviewed: 08/07/01

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