Heart Disease Home > Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis is a slow, progressive disease that causes hardening and narrowing of medium to large blood vessels, such as the aorta and the coronary arteries. Risk factors for the condition include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and cigarette smoking. Treatment may involve lifestyle changes, medication, certain medical procedures, or a combination of these.

What Is Atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is a disease that causes medium-size and larger blood vessels in the body to harden and narrow. Also known as hardening of the arteries, the condition results from the slow buildup of plaque on the inside walls of the arteries. Atherosclerosis is the most common type of arteriosclerosis, a general term referring to various forms of hardening and thickening of blood vessels in the body.
Atherosclerosis can develop in any blood vessel, but the most common locations for narrowing and hardening of the arteries include the:
  • Heart
  • Brain
  • Legs, pelvis, or arms
  • Kidneys.


Understanding Plaque

As mentioned, atherosclerosis is caused by the slow buildup of plaque on the inside walls of the arteries. Arteries are blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to other parts of the body.
Plaque is made up of fat, 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. Plaque can be either:
  • Hard and stable
  • Soft and unstable.
Hard plaque causes the 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. When this happens, the organ supplied by the blocked artery starves for blood and oxygen. The organ's cells may either die or suffer from severe damage.
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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