Atheroma is the cause of various cardiovascular diseases such as angina, heart attack, stroke and peripheral arterial disease, as well as vascular dementia.
What is atheroma?
Patches of atheroma are like small fatty lumps that develop within the inside lining of blood vessels (arteries). Atheroma is also known as atherosclerosis and 'hardening of the arteries'. Patches of atheroma are often called plaques of atheroma.
Over months or years, patches of atheroma can become larger and thicker. So, in time, a patch of atheroma can make an artery narrower, which can restrict and reduce the blood flow through the artery.
Sometimes a patch of atheroma may develop a tiny crack or rupture on the inside surface of the blood vessel. This may trigger a blood clot (thrombosis) to form over the atheroma, which may completely block the blood flow.
What are the diseases caused by atheroma?
Atheroma is the root cause of a number of cardiovascular diseases - that is, diseases of the heart or blood vessels. For example:
Heart pains (called angina) are caused by a narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to the heart (the coronary arteries). If a blood clot forms over a patch of atheroma in a coronary artery it can cause a heart attack (myocardial infarction).
Cerebrovascular disease - stroke and transient ischaemic attack
Cerebrovascular disease means a disease of the arteries in the brain (cerebrum). The problems this can cause include a stroke and a transient ischaemic attack (TIA). A stroke means that part of the brain is suddenly damaged. The common cause of a stroke is an artery in the brain becoming blocked by a blood clot (thrombus). The blood clot usually forms over some atheroma. A TIA is a disorder caused by temporary lack of blood supply to a part of the brain.
Peripheral arterial disease
Peripheral arterial disease is narrowing due to atheroma of arteries other than those in the heart or brain. The arteries that take blood to the legs are the most commonly affected.
If you can prevent a build-up of atheroma in the arteries, you are less likely to develop the above diseases. If you already have one of the above diseases you may prevent or delay it from becoming worse if you prevent further build-up of atheroma. Measures such as stopping smoking if you smoke, reducing a high blood cholesterol level, treating high blood pressure, eating a healthy diet, keeping your weight in check and doing some regular physical activity can help. See separate leaflet called Preventing Cardiovascular Diseases for more details.
Vascular dementia is the second most common type of dementia after Alzheimer's disease. It affects around 150,000 people in the UK.
Dementia is a set of problems that include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. Vascular means it is caused by problems with the blood supply. In vascular dementia, the dementia symptoms occur when the brain is damaged because atheroma has reduced the supply of blood to the brain. The section of brain supplied by the atheroma-blocked blood vessel is damaged, or dies. This is like having a lot of little strokes (or 'infarcts') in the thinking part of the brain. After each infarct, some more brain tissue is damaged and a person's mental ability gradually worsens.
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Further reading & references
- Rafieian-Kopaei M, Setorki M, Doudi M, et al; Atherosclerosis: process, indicators, risk factors and new hopes. Int J Prev Med. 2014 Aug 5(8):927-46.
- Linton MF, Yancey PG, Davies SS, et al; The Role of Lipids and Lipoproteins in Atherosclerosis
- Lauer MS; Screening asymptomatic subjects for subclinical atherosclerosis: not so obvious. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2010 Jul 6 56(2):106-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2010.01.059.
- Toth PP; Subclinical atherosclerosis: what it is, what it means and what we can do about it. Int J Clin Pract. 2008 Aug 62(8):1246-54. Epub 2008 Jun 28.
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