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What is Atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is a condition that occurs when plaque builds up inside of a person’s arteries.

This plaque is made of calcium, cholesterol, fat and other substances that are present in the bloodstream. As time goes on, the plaque begins to harden and narrows the arteries.

This disease can lead to serious medical conditions such as heart attacks, strokes and, in the most severe cases, even death.

What causes atherosclerosis?

Though the exact cause of atherosclerosis isn’t known, there are contributing factors that damage the inner layers of the arteries. These factors include:

  • High amounts of sugar in the blood caused by insulin resistance or diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Large traces of certain fats and cholesterol in the bloodstream
  • Smoking

Plaque usually builds where an artery is damaged, and from there begins to harden and narrow the artery. This can eventually lead to a rupture.

When a rupture occurs, blood cell fragments called platelets stick to the site of the injury and can clump together to form blood clots. These clots narrow the artery even more, which limits the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the body.

Symptoms aren’t prevalent with atherosclerosis until a person has reached middle to older age. However, when the narrowing of the arteries becomes severe, it can cause pain.

Atherosclerosis can cause three main types of cardiovascular disease:

Coronary artery disease – This condition is caused by stable plaques in the heart’s arteries that cause chest pain upon exertion (angina). A sudden plaque rupture and clotting can cause a heart attack or myocardial infarction.

Cerebrovascular disease – Plaques in the brain’s arteries that rupture can cause strokes, which can lead to permanent brain damage. Transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) can also be a result due in part to temporary blockages in an artery.

Peripheral artery disease – When the arteries in the legs begin to narrow because of plaque, poor circulation is a result. Pain while walking and inadequate wound healing are side effects of this disease. Amputations can be necessary in the most severe cases.

Check back in the coming weeks to learn more about the prevention and treatment options of atherosclerosis.

If you’d like to learn more about this disease, contact your primary care physician.

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St. Barnabas Health System
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Gibsonia, PA 15044

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