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Arteriosclerosis & Atherosclerosis

Blocked ArteryArteries are blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to other parts of the body. (Read about "Vascular System") Arteriosclerosis is the thickening and hardening of the walls of the arteries, throughout the body.

AnimationArteriosclerosis is often the result of age-related changes in blood vessels that are part of a general process of increasing stiffness of blood vessels. You can watch our ANIMATION to see what happens in a form of arteriosclerosis called atherosclerosis. The development of arteriosclerosis is accelerated by high blood pressure (Read about "Hypertension: High Blood Pressure"), according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). It can impact the legs and the brain especially. (Read about "The Brain")

Atherosclerosis is a form of arteriosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the hardening and narrowing of the arteries, specifically caused by the slow buildup of plaque on the inside of walls of the arteries. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol (Read about "Cholesterol"), calcium, and other substances found in your blood. As it grows, the buildup of plaque narrows the inside of the artery and, in time, may restrict blood flow. This can affect even the smallest arteries in the body, for example the tiny arteries that feed the heart. (Read about "Coronary Microvascular Disease") NHLBI says plaque can be:

Hard plaque causes artery walls to thicken and harden. Soft plaque is more likely to break apart from the walls and enter the bloodstream. This can cause a blood clot that can partially or totally block the flow of blood in the artery. The artery becomes blocked because it becomes narrower the farther it is from the heart. When this happens, the organ supplied by the blocked artery starves for blood and oxygen. The organ's cells may either die or suffer severe damage.

Atherosclerosis is a slow, progressive disease that may start in childhood. It can affect the arteries of the brain, heart, kidneys, and the arms and legs. As plaque builds up, it can cause serious diseases and complications. These include:

Diseases caused by atherosclerosis are the leading cause of illness and death in the United States. If your doctor suspects arteriosclerosis or atherosclerosis, there are a number of tests that can be done. These include blood tests to measure things like your cholesterol level or an electrocardiogram to record electrical signals as they travel through your heart. (Read about "Laboratory Testing" "EKG - Electrocardiogram") An angiogram may also be used to view the blood flow through your heart.

Treatment options

For many people, lifestyle changes and medications can improve the health of their arteries, although some people also require surgery. Lifestyle changes include:

AHA says medications may also be used. The tendency to form clots may be reduced by aspirin or by other platelet inhibitory and anticoagulant drugs. (Read about "Aspirin and Heart") For those with elevated blood cholesterol, cholesterol-lowering drugs may be prescribed. (Read about "Cholesterol") And if there is high blood pressure or fluid retention, these conditions are also treated. (Read about "Hypertension: High Blood Pressure") If medications are prescribed, always ask your doctor what the medication is, what it does, and whether there are any side effects. (Read about "Medicine Safety")

If there are severe symptoms, or if a blockage is present, surgical options may be needed. One option is coronary angioplasty or balloon angioplasty. In this procedure, a fine tube, or catheter, is threaded through an artery into the narrowed heart vessel. The catheter has a tiny balloon or other device at its tip, that is used to open or stretch the artery. This is done to improve blood flow, after which the tube is removed. (Read about "Angioplasty") Another surgical option is a coronary artery bypass operation. (Read about "Coronary Bypass Surgery") In this procedure, a blood vessel, usually taken from the leg or chest, is grafted onto the blocked artery, bypassing the blocked area. Blocked arteries in other parts of the body can also be treated with angioplasty or bypass surgery.

Remember, atherosclerosis can be present, even without any symptoms, and you may not know you have it until it's too late. Making healthy lifestyle choices can help reduce your risks.

Related Information:

    The Heart & Cardiovascular System


    Peripheral Arterial Disease

    Vascular System

    Cardiac Rehabilitation

    The Heart and Its Valves


    Glossary of Heart Terms

All Concept Communications material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.

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By printing and/or reading this article, you agree that you accept all terms and conditions of use, as specified online.