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What is Atherosclerosis

What is atherosclerosis - This page focuses on information about atherosclerosis, a common health problem that causes diseases such as strokes and heart attacks.

For more information on atherosclerosis, please also visit our pages on Atherosclerosis Symptoms, Causes of Atherosclerosis, and Atherosclerosis Reversal.

Atherosclerosis and Arteriosclerosiss - Are They the Same?

Many people use the terms atherosclerosis and arteriosclerosis interchangeably, but they actually mean differently.

Arteriosclerosis refers to a process in which the arteries are becoming hardened. That's why arteriosclerosis is also called "hardening of the arteries". When we age, the walls of our arteries become thick and less flexible due to the constant pressure on the arteries. Sometimes, this hardening of the arteries can obstruct the normal flow and circulation of blood.

Atherosclerosis is a type of arteriosclerosis. It refers to the build-up of plaques on and in the inner linings of the artery walls. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol and calcium deposits found in the blood. Over time, the plaque hardens and narrows the arteries, thereby reducing the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the organs and other parts of the body. In addition, sometimes soft plaque can burst and break free from the artery wall and cause a blood clot.

Although many people think of atherosclerosis as a heart problem, in reality it can affect not only the coronary arteries, but also arteries anywhere in the body.

What is Atherosclerosis - Stages of Atherosclerosis

Although the exact process of how an artery becomes harden and clogged is not clear, doctors usually refer to the development of atherosclerosis as different stages:
  • The Initial Fatty Streak Stage: This stage can happen in children as young as 10 to 14 whereby a "fatty streak" appears as a yellow streak running along the major arteries. The streak consists of smooth muscle cells filled with cholesterol, and macrophages (a type of white blood that ingests foreign material from the bloodstream).
  • The Fibrous Plaque Stage: Over time, the fatty streak may progress into fibrous plaque consisting of different types of cells all filled with cholesterol. The plague forms in the inner layer of the artery and, as it continues to grow, narrows the inside of the artery where the blood is flowing.
  • The Complicated Lesion Stage: This last stage of atherosclerosis occurs when the fibrous plaque breaks open, exposing the cholesterol and connective tissue underneath. This causes a blood clotting reaction, resulting in a combination of fibrous plaque and blood clot known as a complicated lesion.


What is Atherosclerosis - Effects on Health

The effects of atherosclerosis differ depending upon which arteries in the body narrow and become clogged with plaque.

If the coronary arteries (arteries that bring oxygen-rich blood to the heart) are affected, the result may be coronary artery disease, chest pain, or a heart attack.

If the arteries to the brain are affected, a stroke may result.

If the arteries in the arms or legs are affected, peripheral artery disease or aneurysm (a bulge in the artery wall) may develop.

Fortunately, atherosclerosis is treatable and preventable.

What is Atherosclerosis - Prevention

The same healthy lifestyle changes recommended to treat atherosclerosis also help prevent it. They include:
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Lowering LDL (the "bad" cholesterol) cholesterol levels
  • Eating a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables
  • Quitting smoking
  • Losing weight
  • Getting more exercise

Related Topics

Atherosclerosis Symptoms
Causes of Atherosclerosis
Atherosclerosis Reversal

References (
Revolution (
University of Maryland Medical Center (

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