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Hardening of the Arteries

Facts on Hardening of the Arteries

Hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) is a disorder in which arteries (blood vessels that carry oxygenated blood from the heart to other parts of the body) become narrowed because fat (cholesterol deposits called atherosclerosis) is first deposited on the inside walls of the arteries, then becomes hardened by fibrous tissue and calcification (arteriosclerosis). As this plaque grows, it narrows the lumen of the artery (the space in the artery tubes), thereby reducing both the oxygen and blood supply to the affected organ (like the heart, eyes, kidney, legs, gut, or the brain). The plaque may eventually severely block the artery, causing death of the tissue supplied by the artery, for example, heart attack or stroke.

When the arteries of the heart (coronary arteries) are affected by arteriosclerosis, the person can develop angina, heart attack, congestive heart failure, or abnormal cardiac rhythms (because of coronary artery disease). When the arteries of the brain (cerebral arteries) are affected by arteriosclerosis, the person can develop a threatened stroke, called transient ischemic attack, or actual death of brain tissue, called stroke.

Hardening of the arteries is a progressive condition that may begin in childhood. Fatty streaks can develop in the aorta (the largest blood vessel supplying blood to both the upper and lower part of the body) shortly after birth. In those people with familial history of high cholesterol, the condition may worsen rapidly in the early 20s and progressively become more severe in the 40s and 50s.

In the United States, approximately 720,000 heart attacks occur annually. Nearly 380,000 people die annually from coronary heart disease.

The incidence of coronary heart disease in the Far East is significantly lower than in the West. Possible genetic reasons for this difference are not clearly defined. However, the role of the Western diet, lack of exercise, obesity, and other environmental factors may be responsible contributory factors for the differences.

Last Reviewed 12/12/2017
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Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Atherosclerosis »

Atherosclerosis is a disease of large and medium-sized muscular arteries and is characterized by endothelial dysfunction, vascular inflammation, and the buildup of lipids, cholesterol, calcium, and cellular debris within the intima of the vessel wall.

Read More on Medscape Reference »

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