What is Arteriosclerosis?

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(a) Atherosclerosis can result from plaques formed by the buildup of fatty, calcified deposits in an artery. (b) Plaques can also take other forms, as shown in this micrograph of a coronary artery that has a buildup of connective tissue within the artery wall. LM × 40. (Micrograph provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012)

What is Arteriosclerosis? (OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology)

Compliance allows an artery to expand when blood is pumped through it from the heart, and then to recoil after the surge has passed. This helps promote blood flow. In arteriosclerosis, compliance is reduced, and pressure and resistance within the vessel increase. This is a leading cause of hypertension and coronary heart disease, as it causes the heart to work harder to generate a pressure great enough to overcome the resistance.

Arteriosclerosis begins with injury to the endothelium of an artery, which may be caused by irritation from high blood glucose, infection, tobacco use, excessive blood lipids, and other factors. Artery walls that are constantly stressed by blood flowing at high pressure are also more likely to be injured—which means that hypertension can promote arteriosclerosis, as well as result from it.

Recall that tissue injury causes inflammation. As inflammation spreads into the artery wall, it weakens and scars it, leaving it stiff (sclerotic). As a result, compliance is reduced. Moreover, circulating triglycerides and cholesterol can seep between the damaged lining cells and become trapped within the artery wall, where they are frequently joined by leukocytes, calcium, and cellular debris. Eventually, this buildup, called plaque, can narrow arteries enough to impair blood flow. The term for this condition, atherosclerosis (athero- = “porridge”) describes the mealy deposits.

Sometimes a plaque can rupture, causing microscopic tears in the artery wall that allow blood to leak into the tissue on the other side. When this happens, platelets rush to the site to clot the blood. This clot can further obstruct the artery and—if it occurs in a coronary or cerebral artery—cause a sudden heart attack or stroke. Alternatively, plaque can break off and travel through the bloodstream as an embolus until it blocks a more distant, smaller artery.

Even without total blockage, vessel narrowing leads to ischemia—reduced blood flow—to the tissue region “downstream” of the narrowed vessel. Ischemia in turn leads to hypoxia—decreased supply of oxygen to the tissues. Hypoxia involving cardiac muscle or brain tissue can lead to cell death and severe impairment of brain or heart function.

A major risk factor for both arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis is advanced age, as the conditions tend to progress over time. Arteriosclerosis is normally defined as the more generalized loss of compliance, “hardening of the arteries,” whereas atherosclerosis is a more specific term for the build-up of plaque in the walls of the vessel and is a specific type of arteriosclerosis. There is also a distinct genetic component, and pre-existing hypertension and/or diabetes also greatly increase the risk. However, obesity, poor nutrition, lack of physical activity, and tobacco use all are major risk factors.

Treatment includes lifestyle changes, such as weight loss, smoking cessation, regular exercise, and adoption of a diet low in sodium and saturated fats. Medications to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure may be prescribed. For blocked coronary arteries, surgery is warranted. In angioplasty, a catheter is inserted into the vessel at the point of narrowing, and a second catheter with a balloon-like tip is inflated to widen the opening. To prevent subsequent collapse of the vessel, a small mesh tube called a stent is often inserted. In an endarterectomy, plaque is surgically removed from the walls of a vessel. This operation is typically performed on the carotid arteries of the neck, which are a prime source of oxygenated blood for the brain. In a coronary bypass procedure, a non-vital superficial vessel from another part of the body (often the great saphenous vein) or a synthetic vessel is inserted to create a path around the blocked area of a coronary artery.

Related Research: Research Article: Adventitial Vasa Vasorum Arteriosclerosis in Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/anatomy-and-physiology

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Atherosclerosis: Process, Indicators, Risk Factors and New Hopes