Atherosclerosis is a disease in which plaque builds up on the insides of your arteries. Arteries are blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood to your heart and other parts of your body. Atherosclerosis is also called arteriosclerosis and hardening of the arteries.
Figure A shows a normal artery with normal blood flow. Figure B shows an artery with plaque buildup.
Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances found in the blood. Over time, plaque hardens and narrows your arteries. Over time plaque hardens and narrows your arteries. The flow of oxygen-rich blood to your organs and other parts of your body is reduced. This can lead to serious problems, including heart attack, stroke, or even death.
Atherosclerosis can affect any artery in the body, including arteries in the heart, (coronary artery disease) brain, arms, legs, and pelvis. As a result, different diseases may develop based on which arteries are affected.
Coronary artery disease (CAD). This is when plaque builds up in the coronary arteries. These arteries supply oxygen-rich blood to your heart. When blood flow to your heart is reduced or blocked, it can lead to chest pain and heart attack. Coronary artery disease is also called heart disease, and it's the leading cause of death in the United States.
- Carotid artery disease. This happens when plaque builds up in the carotid arteries. These arteries supply oxygen-rich blood to your brain. When blood flow to your brain is reduced or blocked, it can lead to stroke.
- Peripheral arterial disease (PAD). This occurs when plaque builds up in the major arteries that supply oxygen-rich blood to the legs, arms, and pelvis. When blood flow to these parts of your body is reduced or blocked, it can lead to numbness, pain, and sometimes dangerous infections.