Heart Disease Home > Causes of Heart Disease

One of the main heart disease causes is the thickening and hardening of the inside walls of the arteries, also known as atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis occurs when a fatty substance called plaque builds up on the artery walls, causing them to narrow. Certain risk factors, such as being male, having high cholesterol, and eating a diet high in saturated fat, increase a person's chances of developing heart disease.

What Causes Heart Disease?

The main cause of heart disease (also called coronary artery disease or just CAD) is the thickening and hardening of the inside walls of the arteries. This is called atherosclerosis. Some hardening of the arteries occurs normally as you grow older, but certain risk factors can increase the rate at which atherosclerosis develops.
 

Understanding Atherosclerosis

In atherosclerosis, plaque deposits build up in the arteries. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances from the blood. Plaque buildup in the arteries often begins in childhood. Over time, buildup in the coronary arteries can:
 
  • Narrow the arteries so that less blood can flow to the heart muscle
  • Completely block the arteries and the flow of blood
  • Cause blood clots to form and block the arteries.
     
The two types of plaque deposits in the arteries are:
 
  • Hard and stable
  • Soft and unstable.
     
Hard and stable plaque causes the artery walls to thicken and harden. This condition is associated more with angina (chest pain) than with a heart attack, but heart attacks frequently occur with hard plaque. Soft and unstable plaque, on the other hand, is more likely to break open or apart and cause blood clots. This can lead to a heart attack.
 
Written by/reviewed by:
Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
Last updated/reviewed:
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