"Atherosclerosis starts when high blood pressure, smoking, or high cholesterol damage the endothelium (a thin layer of cells that lines arteries, keeping them toned and smooth)," says Richard Stein, MD, national spokesperson for the American Heart Association. "At that point, cholesterol plaque formation begins."
"It's a jumble of lipids, or cholesterol, cells, and debris, and it creates a bump on the artery wall," explains Stein. As the process of atherosclerosis continues, "the bump gets bigger." A big enough bump can create a blockage.
Atherosclerosis tends to happen throughout the body. "So if you have plaque in your heart, you're at a higher risk for stroke, and vice versa," says Stein.
Atherosclerosis usually causes no symptoms until middle or older age. Once narrowings become severe, they choke off blood flow and can cause pain. Blockages can also suddenly rupture, causing blood to clot inside an artery at the site of the rupture.
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