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ATHEROSCLEROSIS RESOURCE CENTRE
Atherosclerosis is a condition in which fatty material builds up along the walls of the arteries. Eventually, this build-up leads to hardening and narrowing of the arteries. It is a silent and progressive disease which blocks the arteries over time. It is this blockage that is responsible for the majority of strokes, heart attacks and peripheral vascular disease.
The atheromatous plaque is made up of 3 components:
(i) The atheroma: this is a soft, yellowish material found in the centre of the plaque.
(ii) The underlying areas of cholesterol crystals.
(iii) A layer of calcification
Atherosclerosis begins when high blood pressures, smoking and high cholesterol levels damage the endothelial layer of blood vessels. It occurs insidiously, without you even knowing it. The cholesterol plague gets larger over time, eventually reducing blood flow in the arteries. This is what causes the pain of angina (chest pain due to poor coronary artery blood flow) and vascular claudication (pain in the legs after a period of walking due to reduced blood supply to the lower limb muscles).
Another common scenario is when the soft atheromatous plaque suddenly ruptures. This results in a thrombus (blood clot) formation which rapidly blocks the affected vessel, leading to death of the tissues supplied by it. This is what usually happens in a heart attack or stroke.
Atherosclerosis has been found to affect many organ systems, including the heart, brain, intestines, kidneys, and limbs. Atherosclerosis is also sometimes associated with the weakening of the walls of arteries, leading to the formation of aneurysms.