Skip to Content

Atherosclerosis

Topic Overview

What is atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis, sometimes called "hardening of the arteries," occurs when fat (cholesterol) and calcium build up inside the lining of the artery wall, forming a substance called plaque. Over time, the fat and calcium buildup narrows the artery and blocks blood flow through it.

Atherosclerosis can happen in all arteries. If you have atherosclerosis in one of your arteries, there is a good chance that you have atherosclerosis in other blood vessels throughout your body.

What problems does atherosclerosis cause?

Coronary artery disease. When atherosclerosis affects the arteries that supply blood to the heart, the coronary arteries, it can restrict blood flow to the heart muscle.

Heart attack. Plaque, caused by atherosclerosis, is surrounded by a fibrous cap. This fibrous cap may tear or rupture. A tear or rupture tells the body to repair the injured artery lining, much as it might heal a cut on the skin by forming a blood clot to seal the area. A blood clot that forms in an artery can completely block blood flow to the heart muscle and cause a heart attack. See a picture of how atherosclerosis can cause a heart attack.

Stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA). When atherosclerosis affects the arteries that supply blood to the brain, it may cause a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke.

Peripheral arterial disease. Atherosclerosis can affect arteries in other parts of the body, such as the pelvis and legs, causing poor circulation.

Abdominal aortic aneurysm. Atherosclerosis can make the walls of the aorta weak. The aorta is the large artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body.

How is atherosclerosis treated?

A major part of treating atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease involves lifestyle changes (such as quitting smoking) and medicines to help reduce high cholesterol, control high blood pressure, and manage other things that increase a person's risk of heart attack, stroke, and other complications.

How can you slow down atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is a process, and there are ways you can slow it down and help lower your risk for heart attack and stroke. A heart-healthy lifestyle can lower your risk. This includes eating heart-healthy foods, being active, staying at a healthy weight, and not smoking. All of these things have many benefits for your body, your heart, and your blood vessels. If your risk is high, you might also take medicines that lower your risk. These include medicines to lower cholesterol and blood pressure.

How does atherosclerosis happen?

Although the exact process is not completely understood, scientists have described three different stages of atherosclerosis that lead to clogged arteries. These stages do not necessarily occur in order, nor is there always a progression from one stage to the next.

The fatty streak. The "fatty streak" appears as a yellow streak running inside the walls of the major arteries, such as the aorta. The streak consists of cholesterol, white blood cells, and other cellular matter. The fatty streak by itself does not cause symptoms of heart disease but can develop into a more advanced form of atherosclerosis, called fibrous plaque.

The plaque. A plaque forms in the inner layer of the artery. Plaque is a buildup of cholesterol, white blood cells, calcium, and other substances in the walls of arteries. Over time, plaque narrows the artery, and the artery hardens.

Plaque sometimes reduces blood flow to the heart muscle, which can cause angina symptoms. Plaque in the large artery in the neck (carotid artery stenosis) may block blood flow to the brain and is a common cause of transient ischemic attack (sometimes called "mini-stroke") and stroke.

Stable and unstable plaque. Plaques are defined based on the risk that they will tear or rupture. Stable plaque is less likely to rupture. These plaques have a thick fibrous cap and are made up of substances that are stable and not likely to rupture. Unstable plaque is more likely to rupture. These plaques have a thin fibrous cap and are made up of substances like fats that can expand. Inflammation within the plaque can make the fibrous cap unstable and more likely to tear apart.

Blocked artery. A blockage in the artery can happen if the plaque tears or ruptures. This rupture exposes the cholesterol and tissue that was under the fibrous cap. Blood clots form in response to this rupture. The blood clot blocks the blood flow in the artery. This can cause a heart attack or stroke.

Why does atherosclerosis happen?

Response-to-injury. This theory suggests that atherosclerosis develops as a result of repetitive injury to the inner lining of the artery.

Injury may stimulate cells to grow and divide as part of the inflammatory process. This normal, healing response to chronic injury may actually result in the growth of atherosclerotic plaque.

This injury could be caused by any number of things, including:

  • Physical stress on the artery lining, such as stress caused by high blood pressure.
  • A response to an infection within the artery wall.
  • Oxidative damage to the artery lining. Oxidative damage refers to injury caused by unstable molecules called free radicals. Free radicals are formed during reactions between oxygen and LDL ("bad" or low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol.
  • Oxidized LDL cholesterol may cause injury to the blood vessel wall and promote an inflammatory reaction that clogs the artery lining with debris. But exactly why high cholesterol levels promote plaque formation is not clear. Cholesterol is found normally in all cell membranes, but it may alter the physical properties of the blood vessel wall, making it more likely to get damaged.
How smoking leads to atherosclerosis

Smoking plays a large role in the development of atherosclerosis. The carbon monoxide and nicotine contained in tobacco smoke affect blood flow through your arteries by:

  • Making it easier for cholesterol-carrying lipoproteins to enter the walls of your arteries.
  • Promoting the formation of fibrous plaque.
  • Promoting the formation of blood clots that can completely block your arteries.

How does atherosclerosis cause an aortic aneurysm?

Atherosclerosis is one of the major causes of abdominal aortic aneurysm.

The wall of the aorta (and all blood vessels) is a dynamic tissue made up of living cells that need nutrients and oxygen. Many of these nutrients seep from the inside of the blood vessel through the walls to nourish the rest of the blood vessel. When the inner lining of the vessel is covered with an atherosclerotic plaque, nutrients can no longer seep through sufficiently. The cells receive no oxygen, and some of them die. As the atherosclerosis progresses and cells continue to die, the walls become weaker and weaker.

At some point, a critical relationship is reached between the pressure experienced in the center of the blood vessel, the wall tension, and the strength of the wall itself. When this point is reached, the wall begins to dilate (grow larger) in the area of the plaque. As the diameter of the vessel grows, the wall tension increases, leading to even more dilation. The end result is an aneurysm.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Rakesh K. Pai, MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
Specialist Medical Reviewer Stephen Fort, MD, MRCP, FRCPC - Interventional Cardiology
Current as of March 12, 2014

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

© 1995-2014 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.

Symptom Checker

Feeling under the weather?

Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.

Decision Points

Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.

You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about: