Atherosclerosis – the hardening the arteries – is a progressive disease that causes a persons arteries to narrow and their walls to lose their elasticity due to the accumulation of deposits on the inner lining of their blood vessels.
In patients with this condition, substances such as cholesterol, fats, calcium, and fibrin (clotting factors in the blood) build up into plaque and narrow the openings of the affected arteries. As the arterial walls thicken, the amount of blood flow decreases, which increases the risk of blood clot formation (thrombosis).
Scientists believe atherosclerosis is sparked off by damage to the endothelium, the innermost lining of blood vessels that works to keep the inside of arteries toned and smooth to keep blood flowing. Such damage may be caused by factors such as elevated blood lipid levels, high blood pressure (hypertension), and smoking.
Atherosclerosis can develop in any of the arteries in the body, but usually causes no symptoms until middle or older age. When it occurs in the coronary arteries supplying blood to the heart, the patient is said to have coronary heart disease. The most common symptom of this condition is a radiating chest pain. Should coronary arteries already narrowed by atherosclerosis become completely blocked by a blood clot (thrombus), a heart attack happens.