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What Is Atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is a chronic, progressive disease in which plaques (consisting of deposits of cholesterol and other lipids, calcium, and large inflammatory cells called macrophages) build up in the walls of the arteries.

Atherosclerosis is a slow, complex disease that typically starts in childhood and often progresses when people grow older. In some people it progresses rapidly, even in their third decade. Many scientists think it begins with damage to the innermost layer of the artery. This layer is called the endothelium (en"do-THE'le-um). Causes of damage to the arterial wall include:

  • Elevated levels of cholesterol and triglyceride (tri-GLIS'er-id) in the blood
  • High blood pressure
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Diabetes

Treatments for atherosclerosis may include lifestyle changes, medicines, and medical procedures or surgery.

The goals of treatment include:

  • Relieving symptoms
  • Reducing risk factors in an effort to slow or stop the buildup of plaque
  • Lowering the risk of blood clots forming
  • Widening or bypassing plaque-clogged arteries
  • Preventing atherosclerosis-related diseases

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