What Is Atherosclerosis?

Heart puzzle. Symbol for atherosclerosis in the community.
Photo by PIRO4D, c/o Pixabay.

Atherosclerosis is a condition whereby the artery wall gets thicker because fatty materials such as cholesterol build up on it. We often think of it as a hardening or furring up of the arteries. It is the major underlying cause of cardiovascular disease (CVD) but the impact can be felt anywhere in the body. CVD is the number one killer still in the world.

Atherosclerosis affects mainly the arterial blood vessels and is often a response to  chronic inflammation. It occurs when there is an accumulation of macrophage white blood cells that are promoted by low-density lipoproteins. At the same time there is poor removal of fat and cholesterol from the macrophages by functional high density lipoproteins.

The clogging up of the arteries means that multiple plaques are formed inside them. Not only is blood flow restricted and in some cases very severely, the plaques can burst with blood clots (thrombus) forming inside.

The condition is fortunately preventable and treatable.

What Terms Are There? 

  • Arteriosclerosis is a general term describing any hardening (and loss of elasticity) of medium or large arteries
  • Arteriolosclerosis is any hardening (and loss of elasticity) of arterioles (small arteries);
  • Atherosclerosis is a hardening of an artery specifically due to an atheromatous plaque.
  • Atherogenic is a term used for substances or processes that cause atherosclerosis.
  • Atherogenesis is the developmental process of atheromatous plaques

What Are Plaques ?

Plaques are made up of cholesterol, fats, calcium and other materials. These harden with time. In doing so they restrict blood flow in the arterial blood vessels. When blood clots are formed from bursting plaques, they limit the flow of oxygenated blood to various organs and other parts of the body. The condition is most serious when it blocks blood supply to the heart and brain. A heart attack occurs when one of the two main coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart becomes blocked. If a blockage occurs in an artery to the brain we suffer a stroke. Any blood clot in arteries supplying the limbs produces peripheral artery disease. 

Who Is Affected Most  By Atherosclerosis ?

The disease is common. Anybody over 40 and in general good health has a 50% chance of developing serious atherosclerosis. The risk increases with age. Most people over 60 has some form of atherosclerosis but they might not notice it.

What Brings On Atherosclerosis ?

The whole process of developing atherosclerosis is still being investigated but it can start as early as childhood and develop chronically. The symptoms are only experienced at an advanced age.

The risk factors are:-

  • smoking
  • poor nutrition
  • high cholesterol
  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • high weight/obesity
  • low activity

Organisations Helping Us Manage Heart Health

One of the leading groups in the world is the American Heart Association (AHA). In the United Kingdom it is the Heart Research Institute UK.

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