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. This can reduce the blood flow through the artery. For example, narrowing of the heart (coronary) arteries with atheroma is the cause of angina.
Sometimes, a blood clot (thrombosis) forms over a patch of atheroma and completely blocks the blood flow. Depending on the artery affected, this can cause a heart attack, a stroke, or other serious problems.
What are the diseases caused by atheroma?
Atheroma is the root cause of a number of cardiovascular diseases. Cardiovascular diseases are diseases of the heart (cardiac muscle) or blood vessels. However, in practice, when doctors use the term cardiovascular disease they usually mean diseases of the heart or blood vessels that are caused by atheroma.
In summary, cardiovascular diseases caused by atheroma include:
- Heart disease: angina or a heart attack.
- Cerebrovascular disease: stroke or a transient ischaemic attack (TIA).
- Peripheral arterial disease.
- Vascular dementia.
In the UK, cardiovascular diseases are a major cause of poor health and the biggest cause of death.
Vascular dementia is the second most common type of dementia after Alzheimer's disease.
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.
Further reading and references
2016 European Guidelines on cardiovascular disease prevention in clinical practice; European Society of Cardiology (2016)
Identification and management of familial hypercholesterolaemia; NICE Clinical Guideline (August 2008 - last updated July 2016)
2016 ESC/EAS Guidelines for the Management of Dyslipidaemias; European Society of Cardiology (2016)
de Souza RJ, Mente A, Maroleanu A, et al; Intake of saturated and trans unsaturated fatty acids and risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. BMJ. 2015 Aug 11351:h3978. doi: 10.1136/bmj.h3978.
Linton MF, Yancey PG, Davies SS, et al; The Role of Lipids and Lipoproteins in Atherosclerosis
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