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What is Atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis, also called hardening or blockage of the arteries, is a very common condition affecting the arteries, the thick-walled, high-pressure blood vessels that carry fresh oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the rest of the body. In atherosclerosis, a fatty substance called plaque builds up in the walls of arteries, causing thickening and loss of elasticity.

Plaque can make arteries narrower, leading to reduced or blocked blood flow. Plaques can also split open and cause blood clots to form inside the artery. These blood clots can suddenly block all blood flow through the artery, or can break off and travel through the bloodstream to block another artery elsewhere.

Atherosclerosis can affect the medium-sized and large arteries of the brain, the heart, the kidneys and the legs. A partial blockage of an artery in the heart by atherosclerosis leads to a type of chest pain called angina. If that blockage becomes complete and a part of the heart muscle dies, the result is called a heart attack. When atherosclerosis causes the total obstruction of an artery in the brain, the result is a stroke. Atherosclerosis, then, is the underlying cause of most serious heart and circulatory problems.