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What is Atherosclerotic Plaque?

By Stewart Brently
Updated May 17, 2024
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Atherosclerotic plaque refers to the buildup of cholesterol and other material in the arteries that leads to atherosclerosis, a form of coronary artery disease. The name comes from the Greek Atherosklerose, which means "a soft gruel-like deposit and the hardening of a tissue or cell wall." Atherosclerosis thus refers to the condition in which fatty cellular deposits become plaque deposits along the inner linings of medium- or large-sized blood vessels.

Atherosclerosis is characterized by dysfunction of cells that form the lining of blood vessels and the heart, and the buildup of lipids, cholesterol, and calcium within the innermost parts of the vessel wall, causing a hardening and narrowing of the arteries. The resulting atherosclerotic plaque buildup can lead to obstruction or abnormalities in blood flow, as well as a reduction in much needed oxygen to vital organs. The buildup of plaque is a factor for the onset of heart disease and stroke. In addition to the heart and its surrounding blood vessels, larger vessels such as those in the legs can accumulate atherosclerotic plaque, resulting in diminished blood flow.

In the US, experts estimate about 80 million people have existing cardiovascular diseases; that's roughly 36 percent of the population. Another 795,000 people will suffer new or recurrent strokes per year. Atherosclerosis is more commonly seen in men, although postmenopausal women are equally at risk as men of the same age. In general, it becomes clinically apparent after the age of 40.

Due to atherosclerotic plaque being considered a predominantly asymptomatic symptom, it is unknown exactly how an individual, or how many people, will develop atherosclerosis. Studies comparing the occurrence of heart disease show that this condition, as well as other coronary disorders, is more prevalent in western cultures; the Far East and the African continent have a much lower frequency. Therefore, lifestyle factors, namely the fatty western diet, are seen as a major contributor.

Other causes of atherosclerotic plaque accumulation, and thus atherosclerosis, include a number of illnesses. High serum cholesterol levels can influence plaque buildup. Hypertension or high blood pressure is a major cause, affecting overall health, and coronary health in particular. Cigarette smoking, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes mellitus each have an influence as well. Recent research on urban communities has posited air pollution as a possible cause.

Atherosclerotic plaque is not a disease or medical condition in itself, so prevention lies in overall health maintenance. Adhering to the common advice of eating a low-fat, balanced diet, getting regular exercise and adequate sleep, and keeping stress to a minimum is the best way to increase one's chance of having a healthy, long life.

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Discussion Comments
By anon133014 — On Dec 09, 2010

Very well written! --Dr. Lin

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