Dictionary Definition

atherosclerosis n : a stage of arteriosclerosis involving fatty deposits (atheromas) inside the arterial walls [syn: coronary artery disease] [also: atheroscleroses (pl)]

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. The clogging or hardening of arteries or blood vessels caused by plaques (accumulations of fatty deposits, usually cholesterol).


clogging or hardening of blood vessels caused by plaques
  • Finnish: valtimon haurauskovetustauti, ateroskleroosi
  • French: athérosclérose

Related terms

Extensive Definition

}} Atherosclerosis is a disease affecting arterial blood vessels. It is a chronic inflammatory response in the walls of arteries, in large part due to the accumulation of macrophage white blood cells and promoted by low density (especially small particle) lipoproteins (plasma proteins that carry cholesterol and triglycerides) without adequate removal of fats and cholesterol from the macrophages by functional high density lipoproteins(HDL), (see apoA-1 Milano). It is commonly referred to as a "hardening" or "furring" of the arteries. It is caused by the formation of multiple plaques within the arteries.
The atheromatous plaque is divided into three distinct components:
  1. The atheroma ("lump of porridge", from Athera, porridge in Greek,), which is the nodular accumulation of a soft, flaky, yellowish material at the center of large plaques, composed of macrophages nearest the lumen of the artery
  2. Underlying areas of cholesterol crystals
  3. Calcification at the outer base of older/more advanced lesions.
The following terms are similar, yet distinct, in both spelling and meaning, and can be easily confused: arteriosclerosis, arteriolosclerosis, and atherosclerosis. Arteriosclerosis is a general term describing any hardening (and loss of elasticity) of medium or large arteries (from the Greek Arterio, meaning artery, and sclerosis, meaning hardening), arteriolosclerosis is any hardening (and loss of elasticity) of arterioles (small arteries), atherosclerosis is a hardening of an artery specifically due to an atheromatous plaque. Therefore, atherosclerosis is a form of arteriosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis causes two main problems. First, the atheromatous plaques, though long compensated for by artery enlargement (see IMT), eventually lead to plaque ruptures and stenosis (narrowing) of the artery and, therefore, an insufficient blood supply to the organ it feeds. If the compensating artery enlargement process is excessive, then a net aneurysm results.
These complications are chronic, slowly progressing and cumulative. Most commonly, soft plaque suddenly ruptures (see vulnerable plaque), causing the formation of a thrombus that will rapidly slow or stop blood flow, leading to death of the tissues fed by the artery in approximately 5 minutes. This catastrophic event is called an infarction. One of the most common recognized scenarios is called coronary thrombosis of a coronary artery, causing myocardial infarction (a heart attack). Another common scenario in very advanced disease is claudication from insufficient blood supply to the legs, typically due to a combination of both stenosis and aneurysmal segments narrowed with clots. Since atherosclerosis is a body-wide process, similar events occur also in the arteries to the brain, intestines, kidneys, legs, etc.


Atherosclerosis develops from low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), colloquially called "bad cholesterol". Many believe that, when this lipoprotein gets through the wall of an artery, oxygen free radicals react with it to form oxidized-LDL. The body's immune system responds by sending specialised white blood cells (macrophages and T-lymphocytes) to absorb the oxidised-LDL. Unfortunately, these white blood cells are not able to process the oxidised-LDL, and ultimately grow then rupture, depositing a greater amount of oxidised cholesterol into the artery wall. This triggers more white blood cells, continuing the cycle.
Eventually, the artery becomes inflamed. The cholesterol plaque causes the muscle cells to enlarge and form a hard cover over the affected area. This hard cover is what causes a narrowing of the artery, reduces the blood flow and increases blood pressure.
Some researchers believe that atherosclerosis may be caused by an infection of the vascular smooth muscle cells. Chickens, for example, develop atherosclerosis when infected with the Marek's disease herpesvirus. Herpesvirus infection of arterial smooth muscle cells has been shown to cause cholesteryl ester (CE) accumulation. Cholesteryl ester accumulation is associated with atherosclerosis.


Atherosclerosis typically begins in early adolescence, and is usually found in most major arteries, yet is asymptomatic and not detected by most diagnostic methods during life. The stage immediately prior to actual atherosclerosis is known as subclinical atherosclerosis. The majority of the process leading to subclinical atherosclerosis can happen without our knowing it, especially given the large variety of risk factors. . Autopsies of healthy young men that died during the Korean and Vietnam Wars showed evidence of the disease. It most commonly becomes seriously symptomatic when interfering with the coronary circulation supplying the heart or cerebral circulation supplying the brain, and is considered the most important underlying cause of strokes, heart attacks, various heart diseases including congestive heart failure, and most cardiovascular diseases, in general. Atheroma in arm, or more often in leg arteries, which produces decreased blood flow is called Peripheral artery occlusive disease (PAOD).
According to United States data for the year 2004, for about 65% of men and 47% of women, the first symptom of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease is heart attack or sudden cardiac death (death within one hour of onset of the symptom).
Most artery flow disrupting events occur at locations with less than 50% lumen narrowing (~20% stenosis is average). [The reader might reflect that the illustration above, like most illustrations of arterial disease, overemphasizes lumen narrowing, as opposed to compensatory external diameter enlargement (at least within smaller arteries, e.g., heart arteries) typical of the atherosclerosis process as it progresses, see Glagov

Visible features

Although arteries are not typically studied microscopically, two plaque types can be distinguishedhttp://www.pathologyatlas.ro/Coronary%20ATS%20Calcification.html:
  1. The fibro-lipid (fibro-fatty) plaque is characterized by an accumulation of lipid-laden cells underneath the intima of the arteries, typically without narrowing the lumen due to compensatory expansion of the bounding muscular layer of the artery wall. Beneath the endothelium there is a "fibrous cap" covering the atheromatous "core" of the plaque. The core consists of lipid-laden cells (macrophages and smooth muscle cells) with elevated tissue cholesterol and cholesterol ester content, fibrin, proteoglycans, collagen, elastin, and cellular debris. In advanced plaques, the central core of the plaque usually contains extracellular cholesterol deposits (released from dead cells), which form areas of cholesterol crystals with empty, needle-like clefts. At the periphery of the plaque are younger "foamy" cells and capillaries. These plaques usually produce the most damage to the individual when they rupture.
  2. The fibrous plaque is also localized under the intima, within the wall of the artery resulting in thickening and expansion of the wall and, sometimes, spotty localized narrowing of the lumen with some atrophy of the muscular layer. The fibrous plaque contains collagen fibers (eosinophilic), precipitates of calcium (hematoxylinophilic) and, rarely, lipid-laden cells.
In effect, the muscular portion of the artery wall forms small aneurysms just large enough to hold the atheroma that are present. The muscular portion of artery walls usually remain strong, even after they have remodeled to compensate for the atheromatous plaques.
However, atheromas within the vessel wall are soft and fragile with little elasticity. Arteries constantly expand and contract with each heartbeat, i.e., the pulse. In addition, the calcification deposits between the outer portion of the atheroma and the muscular wall, as they progress, lead to a loss of elasticity and stiffening of the artery as a whole.
The calcification deposits, after they have become sufficiently advanced, are partially visible on coronary artery computed tomography or electron beam tomography (EBT) as rings of increased radiographic density, forming halos around the outer edges of the atheromatous plaques, within the artery wall. On CT, >130 units on the Hounsfield scale

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

angina, angina pectoris, aortic insufficiency, aortic stenosis, apoplectic stroke, apoplexy, arrhythmia, arteriosclerosis, atrial fibrillation, auricular fibrillation, beriberi heart, calcification, callusing, cardiac arrest, cardiac insufficiency, cardiac shock, cardiac stenosis, cardiac thrombosis, carditis, case hardening, concretion, congenital heart disease, cor biloculare, cor juvenum, cor triatriatum, cornification, coronary, coronary insufficiency, coronary thrombosis, crystallization, diastolic hypertension, encased heart, endocarditis, extrasystole, fatty heart, fibroid heart, firming, flask-shaped heart, fossilization, frosted heart, granulation, hairy heart, hardening, heart attack, heart block, heart condition, heart disease, heart failure, high blood pressure, hornification, hypertension, hypertensive heart disease, induration, ischemic heart disease, lapidification, lithification, mitral insufficiency, mitral stenosis, myocardial infarction, myocardial insufficiency, myocarditis, myovascular insufficiency, ossification, ox heart, palpitation, paralytic stroke, paroxysmal tachycardia, pericarditis, petrifaction, petrification, pile, premature beat, pseudoaortic insufficiency, pulmonary insufficiency, pulmonary stenosis, rheumatic heart disease, round heart, sclerosis, setting, solidification, steeling, stiffening, stony heart, stroke, tachycardia, tempering, thrombosis, toughening, tricuspid insufficiency, tricuspid stenosis, turtle heart, varicose veins, varix, ventricular fibrillation, vitrifaction, vitrification
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