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Atherosclerosis

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

  • When atherosclerosis affects the arteries that supply blood to the heart, it can restrict blood flow to the heart muscle, causing heart pain (angina), irregular heartbeats (arrhythmia), and other problems. Plaque may burst open the artery lining, causing blood clots that can block blood flow, which in turn may cause a heart attack and cause damage to the heart muscle. Atherosclerosis in the heart (coronary) arteries is called coronary artery disease.
  • When atherosclerosis affects the arteries that supply blood to the brain, it may cause a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke.
  • Atherosclerosis can affect arteries in other parts of the body, such as the pelvis and legs, causing poor circulation, slower healing of skin injuries, and erection problems.

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.

Last Revised: April 6, 2012

Author: Healthwise Staff

Medical Review: Rakesh K. Pai, MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology & Robert A. Kloner, MD, PhD - Cardiology

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