What Is Atherosclerosis?

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Atherosclerosis is a medical condition that occurs when deposits of fat and plaque build up in artery walls, causing reduced blood flow to parts of the body, according to Merck Manuals. The condition is the leading cause of death in the United States and many other countries because of risk factors such as diabetes, obesity, lack of exercise, diet and smoking.

Atherosclerosis is caused by repeated injury to the inner lining of the arteries, with the injury being physical stress in the form of high blood pressure or inflammatory stress in the form of infections, high cholesterol or high blood glucose, notes Merck Manuals. Injury to the arteries causes white blood cells to attach to artery walls, leading to plaque formations that can trigger blood clots to form. If the blood clots dislodge, they travel to other parts of the body, which can block an artery and cause a heart attack. Other symptoms of atherosclerosis depend on the severity of the condition, with the first symptom of atherosclerosis typically being cramps or pain in the chest.

Patients with atherosclerosis also experience leg cramps while walking or high blood pressure due to a decreased blood supply to the legs and kidneys, respectively, explains Merck Manuals. Doctors diagnose patients with atherosclerosis through various tests, including elctrocardiography, blood tests, stress tests and heart catheterization. To prevent atherosclerosis from progressing, patients are advised to stop smoking, keep their diabetes under control, exercise, take statin medications, and lose weight. If patients do not take preventive measures, atherosclerosis can lead to complications such as stroke, gangrene or heart attack