Atherosclerosis (arteriosclerotic vascular disease or ASVD) is a condition in which an artery wall thickens as a result of the accumulation of fatty materials such as cholesterol. It is a syndrome affecting arterial blood vessels, a chronic inflammatory response in the walls of arteries, caused largely by the accumulation of macrophage white blood cells and promoted by low-density lipoproteins (plasma proteins that carry cholesterol and triglycerides) without adequate removal of fats and cholesterol from the macrophages by functional high density lipoproteins (HDL).
The atheromatous plaque is divided into three distinct components:
The atheroma, 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.
Underlying areas of cholesterol crystals.
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 arteria, 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. The term atherogenic is used for substances or processes that cause atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis is a chronic disease that remains asymptomatic for decades. Atherosclerotic lesions, or atherosclerotic plaques are separated into two broad categories: Stable and unstable (also called vulnerable). The pathobiology of atherosclerotic lesions is very complicated but generally, stable atherosclerotic plaques, which tend to be asymptomatic, are rich in extracellular matrix and smooth muscle cells, while, unstable plaques are rich in macrophages and foam cells and the extracellular matrix separating the lesion from the arterial lumen (also known as the fibrous cap) is usually weak and prone to rupture. Ruptures of the fibrous cap expose thrombogenic material, such as collagen to the circulation and eventually induce thrombus formation in the lumen. Upon formation, intraluminal thrombi can occlude arteries outright (i.e. coronary occlusion), but more often they detach, move into the circulation and eventually occlude smaller downstream branches causing thromboembolism (i.e. Stroke is often caused by thrombus formation in the carotid arteries). Apart from thromboembolism, chronically expanding atherosclerotic lesions can cause complete closure of the lumen. Interestingly, chronically expanding lesions are often asymptomatic until lumen stenosis is so severe that blood supply to downstream tissue(s) is insufficient resulting in ischemia.
These complications of advanced atherosclerosis are chronic, slowly progressive 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). The same process in an artery to the brain is commonly called stroke. Another common scenario in very advanced disease is claudication from insufficient blood supply to the legs, typically caused by a combination of both stenosis and aneurysmal segments narrowed with clots.
Atherosclerosis can occur body-wide, in the arteries to the brain, intestines, kidneys, legs, etc. with many infarctions involving only very small amounts of tissue. These are termed “clinically silent” because the person having the infarction does not notice the problem and does not seek medical help, or when they do, physicians do not recognize what has happened.