«Atherosclerosis is a disease in which the inside of an artery narrows due to the build up of plaque. Initially, there are generally no symptoms. When severe, it can result in coronary artery disease, stroke, peripheral artery disease, or kidney problems, depending on which arteries are affected. Symptoms, if they occur, generally do not begin until middle age.
The exact cause is not known. Risk factors include abnormal cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, obesity, family history, and an unhealthy diet. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances found in the blood. The narrowing of arteries limits the flow of oxygen-rich blood to parts of the body. Diagnosis is based upon a physical exam, electrocardiogram, and exercise stress test, among others.
Prevention is generally by eating a healthy diet, exercising, not smoking, and maintaining a normal weight. Treatment of established disease may include medications to lower cholesterol such as statins, blood pressure medication, or medications that decrease clotting, such as aspirin. A number of procedures may also be carried out such as percutaneous coronary intervention, coronary artery bypass graft, or carotid endarterectomy.
Atherosclerosis generally starts when a person is young and worsens with age. Almost all people are affected to some degree by the age of 65. Atherosclerosis is the number one cause of death and disability in the developed world. Atherosclerosis was first described in 1575. There is evidence, however, that the condition occurred in people more than 5,000 years ago.
The following terms are similar, yet distinct, in both spelling and meaning, and can be easily confused: arteriosclerosis, arteriolosclerosis, and atherosclerosis. Arteriosclerosis is a general term describing any hardening (and loss of elasticity) of medium or large arteries (from Greek, Modern ἀρτηρία (artēria), meaning 'artery', and σκλήρωσις (sklerosis), meaning 'hardening'); arteriolosclerosis is any hardening (and loss of elasticity) of arterioles (small arteries); atherosclerosis is a hardening of an artery specifically due to an atheromatous plaque (from Ancient Greek ἀθήρα (athḗra), meaning 'gruel'). The term atherogenic is used for substances or processes that cause formation of atheroma.
Atherosclerosis is asymptomatic for decades because the arteries enlarge at all plaque locations, thus there is no effect on blood flow. Even most plaque ruptures do not produce symptoms until enough narrowing or closure of an artery, due to clots, occurs. Signs and symptoms only occur after severe narrowing or closure impedes blood flow to different organs enough to induce symptoms. Most of the time, patients realize that they have the disease only when they experience other cardiovascular disorders such as stroke or heart attack. These symptoms, however, still vary depending on which artery or organ is affected.
Typically, atherosclerosis begins in childhood, as a thin layer of white-yellowish streaks with the inner layers of the artery walls (an accumulation of white blood cell, mostly monocytes/macrophages) and progresses from there.
Clinically, given enlargement of the arteries for decades, symptomatic atherosclerosis is typically associated with men in their 40s and women in their 50s to 60s. Sub-clinically, the disease begins to appear in childhood, and rarely is already present at birth. Noticeable signs can begin developing at puberty. Though symptoms are rarely exhibited in children, early screening of children for cardiovascular diseases could be beneficial to both the child and his/her relatives. While coronary artery disease is more prevalent in men than women, atherosclerosis of the cerebral arteries and stroke equally affect both sex.
Marked narrowing in the coronary arteries, which are responsible for bringing oxygenated blood to the heart, can produce symptoms such as the chest pain of angina and shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, dizziness or light-headedness, breathlessness or palpitations. Abnormal heart rhythms called arrhythmia—the heart beating either too slowly or too quickly—are another consequence of ischemia.
Carotid arteries supply blood to the brain and neck. Marked narrowing of the carotid arteries can present with symptoms such as a feeling of weakness, not being able to think straight, difficulty speaking, becoming dizzy and difficulty in walking or standing up straight, blurred vision, numbness of the face, arms, and legs, severe headache and losing consciousness. These symptoms are also related to stroke (death of brain cell). Stroke is caused by marked narrowing or closure of arteries going to the brain; lack of adequate blood supply lead to the death of the cell of the affected tissue.
Peripheral arteries, which supply blood to the legs, arms, and pelvis, also experience marked narrowing due to plaque rupture and clots. Symptoms for the marked narrowing are numbness within the arms or legs, as well as pain. Another significant location for the plaque formation is the renal arteries, which supply blood to the kidney. Plaque occurrence and accumulation lead to decreased kidney blood flow and chronic kidney disease, which, like all other areas, are typically asymptomatic until late stages.
According to United States data for 2004, in about 66% of men and 47% of women, the first symptom of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease is a heart attack or sudden cardiac death (death within one hour of onset of the symptom). Cardiac stress testing, traditionally the most commonly performed non-invasive testing method for blood flow limitations, in general, detects only lumen narrowing of ≈75% or greater, although some physicians claim that nuclear stress methods can detect as little as 50%.» (wikipedia)