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What is Atherosclerosis?

MRIs can be used to diagnose atherosclerosis.
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  • Written By: J. Beam
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 11 September 2014
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Atherosclerosis is the medical term used to describe hardening of the arteries. A condition that develops in many people, atherosclerosis occurs when plaque begins to build up on the arterial walls of the body. Atherosclerosis is a progressive condition that often does not present itself for diagnosis until it affects the health of the body.

Atherosclerosis is the leading cause of heart attacks and heart disease. It can also cause strokes and can potentially be fatal over time. Essentially, the plaque build-up on the arterial walls becomes so significant that it begins to block the flow of blood. When vital organs, such as the heart or lungs, are deprived of oxygen rich blood, atherosclerosis becomes a life-threatening condition. Other complications of atherosclerosis are detachment of plaque build up and blood clots that travel and become lodged elsewhere in the body.

Though medical research has not conclusively proven what causes atherosclerosis, certain factors are known to pose increased risks for developing the condition. Age and family history play a role in the risk factors of developing atherosclerosis. Most people's arteries begin to build up with plaque as they age, but a family history may increase the risk of developing the condition sooner. Other risk factors for atherosclerosis include diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure, and obesity. A regular diet high in fat and cholesterol may also increase the risk for developing atherosclerosis.

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Atherosclerosis is not typically diagnosed without other symptoms presenting as a result of a severely blocked or narrowed artery. Chest pain, heart attack, or stroke can be a result of atherosclerosis, though the condition may not have been previously detected. For people who have a high risk of developing the condition or people who have related symptoms, diagnostic tests can be performed to determine if atherosclerosis is present in a patient. Among other tests, medical resonance imaging (MRI) and CT scans, stress tests, arteriography and blood work are diagnostic tools that can help physicians discover atherosclerosis. Talk to your doctor if you have a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or other risk factors, or if symptoms are present.

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