It is a disease in which plaques that are made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances build up in the walls of arteries (the blood vessels that carry blood from the heart throughout the body).
Over time, the plaques harden, narrow the opening of the arteries and restrict the blood flow. When these fatty plaques break open, they form a thrombus (blood clot) that can further limit, or even block the flow of oxygen-rich blood to organs and other parts of the body.
Atherosclerosis can occur in arteries anywhere in the body but is most serious when it leads to a reduced or blocked blood supply to the heart or to the brain. If it occurs in one of the two main coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart, this results in a heart attack. When thrombosis occurs in one of the arteries to the brain, it causes a stroke. If it occurs in arteries in the limbs, it can lead to peripheral artery disease.
Atherosclerosis is very common. Over the age of 40, people in general good health have about a 50 per cent chance of developing serious atherosclerosis, with this risk increasing with age. Most people over the age of 60 have some atherosclerosis, but often do not have noticeable symptoms.1
As the underlying cause of CVD – New Zealand’s, and the world’s, number one killer – as well as playing a key role in heart attack and stroke, atherosclerosis can have devastating long-term consequences.
Atherosclerosis is a complex process, often starting in childhood and progressing with age. It usually does not cause symptoms until an advanced stage, where the narrowing of arteries becomes so severe that blood flow is interrupted, and CVD has developed.
While the exact cause of atherosclerosis is not known, it is linked to certain risk factors:
People at risk of developing atherosclerosis should be tested if possible – early detection and the implementation of a management plan can help to prevent its progression.
What is HRI doing?
HRI is conducting groundbreaking research from a broad range of angles to understand how atherosclerosis develops and to find innovative ways of preventing, detecting and treating the resultant cardiovascular disease.
Our Atherosclerosis and Vascular Remodelling Group aims to identify and gain insights from the genetic and molecular pathways involved in cardiovascular disease.
Importantly, our Vascular Complications Group has discovered a new class of white blood cells that protect against atherosclerosis, and they are now trying to find a way of boosting these cells in models of cardiovascular disease.
Further to this, the Thrombosis Group is investigating how these atherosclerotic fatty plaques can promote the formation of blood clots.
- Tuzcu EM et al; High Prevalence of Coronary Atherosclerosis in Asymptomatic Teenagers and Young Adults; Circulation. 2001;103:2705–2710.