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Hardening of the arteries

  • Definition

    Hardening of the arteries, also called atherosclerosis, is a common disorder. It occurs when fat, cholesterol, and other substances build up in the walls of arteries and form hard structures called plaques.

    Over time, these plaques can block the arteries and cause symptoms and problems throughout the body.

    Alternative Names

    Atherosclerosis; Arteriosclerosis; Plaque buildup - arteries

    Causes, incidence, and risk factors

    Over the course of years and decades, plaque buildup narrows your arteries and makes them stiffer. These changes make it harder for blood to flow through them.

    Clots may form in these narrowed arteries and block blood flow. Pieces of plaque can also break off and move to smaller blood vessels, blocking them.

    Either way, the blockage starves tissues of blood and oxygen, which can result in damage or tissue death (necrosis).This is a common cause of heart attack and stroke. If a clot moves into an artery in the lungs, it can cause a pulmonary embolism.

    In some cases, the plaque is part of a process that causes a weakening of the wall of an artery. This can lead to an aneurysm. Aneurysms can break open (rupture), and cause bleeding that can be life threatening.

    Hardening of the arteries is a process that often occurs with aging. However, high blood cholesterol levels can make this process happen at a younger age.

    For most people, high cholesterol levels are the result of an unhealthy lifestyle -- most commonly, eating a diet that is high in fat. Other lifestyle factors are heavy alcohol use, lack of exercise, and being overweight.

    Other risk factors for hardening of the arteries are:

    • Diabetes
    • Family history of hardening of the arteries
    • High blood pressure
    • Smoking