Atherosclerosis is the term used to describe hardening of the arteries. Hardening of the arteries is a common disorder and occurs when fat, cholesterol, and other material build up in the walls of the arteries causing inflammation and leading to the formation of fatty deposits called plaques. This plaque buildup narrows and stiffens the arteries making it harder for blood to flow through them.
As inflammation worsens plaques may rupture leading to the formation of blood clots which can block the flow of blood. In addition, pieces of plaque can break off and block smaller blood vessels. This blockage prevents blood and oxygen from reaching tissues in the body which can lead to serious cardiovascular events such as angina (chest pain), myocardial infarction (heart attack) or stroke.
Angina occurs when one or more of the heart’s arteries (called coronary arteries) are blocked. When this occurs, the amount of blood and oxygen going to the heart is reduced causing pressure or a squeezing pain in the chest.
A myocardial infarction (heart attack) typically occurs when the blood supply to the heart is blocked for an extended period of time causing the heart muscle to become damaged or die. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, atherosclerosis causes more than 90% of heart attacks.
A stroke occurs when there is an interruption in blood flow to the brain or when blood vessels in the brain rupture. The interruption of blood flow or the rupture of blood vessels causes brain cells to become damaged or die.
Risk factors for atherosclerosis include:
Atherosclerosis can be treated and/or prevented by living a healthy lifestyle. Important lifestyle changes include quitting smoking, eating a healthy low fat diet, reducing alcohol intake, and exercising.
In addition to living a healthy lifestyle, some people may need to take medications in order to reduce their risk of atherosclerosis. Certain medications may help reduce the risk of atherosclerosis by reducing fats and cholesterol in the blood or controlling blood pressure.
In serious cases, a person may need to undergo certain procedures to treat their condition. Possible procedures include percutaneous coronary intervention or coronary artery bypass surgery.