Atherosclerosis: The Link Between Hardening Arteries & Cardiovascular Diseases

Medically Reviewed by Carolin Schneider, MD

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Atherosclerosis, also known as the hardening of the arteries due to plaques inside your arteries, is a major cause of several health conditions worldwide. Atherosclerosis can affect every middle or large-sized artery and its branches, including the coronary arteries. The resulting cardiovascular diseases are a major cause of mortality worldwide, accounting for one in three deaths in the United States. 

Other potential consequences of atherosclerosis include stroke, heart attack or bowel infarction. These secondary conditions usually develop over decades and remain asymptomatic for a long time. Therefore, preventive measures are extremely important. Prevention includes reducing the known risk factors of atherosclerosis through lifestyle measures, lowering blood lipids, adjusting blood pressure and treating diabetes mellitus.

What Is Plaque?

Atherosclerosis comes from the Greek words “athero”, which means paste, and “sclerosis”, which means hard. This name describes a condition in which a plaque adheres to the artery, leading to hardening of the artery or its branches.

Plaque is a sticky substance often made of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances found in the blood. There are two types of plaque, stable and unstable.

  • A stable plaque has a thick fibrous cap that is made of smooth muscle cells. Stable plaques recede, remain unchanged or grow slowly over several decades until they cause a stenosis or a vascular occlusion. Those plaques are often asymptomatic or if symptomatic, can be detected and removed before causing severe consequences.
  • An unstable plaque is much more dangerous because the cap is much thinner. Therefore, the lid can rupture, allowing the plaque to clot the artery or to travel elsewhere in the body, causing a life-threatening heart attack, stroke, or embolism.