Atherosclerosis is the leading cause of death and illness in many developed countries, including the United States. This disease affects the body’s arteries, causing them to narrow and stiffen.
The arteries of the body are the vessels which pump blood from the heart to the rest of the body. When healthy, they are very strong and flexible; however with age the arteries become less flexible. High blood pressure and inflammation contribute to the hardening. This process of arterial stiffening is called arteriosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis is a type of arteriosclerosis in which fatty deposits called plaques build up in the arteries. The buildup of plaques can restrict blood flow through the arteries, causing disease in various parts of the body, including the heart and brain.
What Are the Effects of Atherosclerosis?
Effects develop very gradually, and often, there are no symptoms in the early stage of the disease. The development of this disease is complex, and there are many different factors involved in the hardening of arteries and the buildup of plaque deposits.
The main event that triggers the development of the disease is repeated injury to the walls of arteries. This injury can be caused by high blood pressure, inflammatory diseases such as diabetes, and infections. As the injury heals, the formerly-smooth artery wall is overlaid with scar tissue. Once the walls are no longer smooth, it is easier for cholesterol, and minerals such as calcium, to adhere to the artery. Over time, these deposits form a plaque.
Most people don’t have any arteriosclerosis symptoms until an artery becomes narrow enough that at least one part of the body is not receiving an adequate supply of blood. In some cases, an advanced plaque or blood clot can completely block the artery, or part of a plaque or clot can break off and travel further along the artery to cause a blockage elsewhere.
The answer to the question, “what are the effects of atherosclerosis?” is best explained by dividing the effects up into three types, based on what parts of the body are affected.
When atherosclerosis occurs in the arteries of the heart, the most common symptom that can occur is chest pain, or angina. This pain is centered in the chest, and feels like a crushing or squeezing pain. People with angina typically have episodes of pain after exercise which goes away upon resting.
If blood flow to the heart is suddenly and completely blocked, a heart attack might be the result. Sudden blockage is often due to the presence of a clot in an artery feeding the heart.
If atherosclerotic deposits develop in the arteries that feed the brain, there is a risk of transient ischemic attack (TIA), or a mini-stroke. This is a temporary reduction of blood flow to the brain, and can cause sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body, difficulty speaking, confusion, and vision disturbances.
Without treatment, a TIA can progress to a stroke. Sometimes, a TIA can occur without progressing to a stroke. In these cases, the mini-stroke is a warning sign that there is a risk of a much larger stroke occurring.
Peripheral artery disease (PAD) develops if plaque deposits block blood flow to the arteries that supply the arms, pelvis, or legs.
The most common symptoms of peripheral artery disease are pain and numbness in the affected areas. Someone with PAD of the legs can develop intermittent claudication, a symptom which causes pain in the legs when walking.
Someone with PAD is not necessarily at direct risk of a heart attack or stroke, but it is possible for arterial plaques in the legs or arms to burst, potentially releasing a blood clot which might block heart or brain arteries.
F Brian Boudi, MD for eMedicine: Atherosclerosis and Risk Factors
Merck Online Medical Library: Atherosclerosis
National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: What is Atherosclerosis?