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11.29: Cardiovascular Diseases

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    How do you "fix" arteries?

    When a blood vessel gets clogged, there is no medical equivalent of "Drano" that will clear it out. There is, however, a procedure known as angioplasty. A thin tube with a balloon is threaded through the blood vessels. Once in place, the balloon is inflated to compress the clog against the artery wall.

    Cardiovascular Diseases

    cardiovascular disease (CVD) is any disease that affects the cardiovascular system. But the term is usually used to describe diseases that are linked to atherosclerosis.

    Atherosclerosis (Figure below) is an inflammation of the walls of arteries that causes swelling and a buildup of material called plaque. Plaque is made of cell pieces, fatty substances, calcium, and connective tissue that builds up around the area of inflammation. As a plaque grows, it stiffens and narrows the artery, which decreases the flow of blood through the artery.

    Atherosclerosis occurs when artery walls become inflamed and plaque builds up
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Atherosclerosis is sometimes referred to as hardening of the arteries; plaque build-up decreases the blood flow through the artery.

    Atherosclerosis normally begins in late childhood and is typically found in most major arteries. It does not usually have any early symptoms. Causes of atherosclerosis include a high-fat diet, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity, and diabetes. Atherosclerosis becomes a threat to health when the plaque buildup prevents blood circulation in the heart or the brain. A blocked blood vessel in the heart can cause a heart attack. Blockage of the circulation in the brain can cause a stroke.

    Ways to prevent atherosclerosis include eating healthy foods, getting plenty of exercise and not smoking. These three factors are not as hard to control as you may think. If you smoke, STOP. Start a regular exercise program and watch what you eat.

    A diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol can raise your cholesterol levels, which makes more plaque available to line artery walls and narrow your arteries. Cholesterol and saturated fats are found mostly in animal products such as meat, eggs, milk, and other dairy products. Check food labels to find the amount of saturated fat in a product. Also, avoid large amounts of salt and sugar. Be careful with processed foods, such as frozen dinners, as they can be high in fat, sugar, salt and cholesterol. Eat lots of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, smaller portions of lean meats and fish, and whole grains such as oats and whole wheat. Limit saturated fats like butter, instead choose unsaturated vegetable oils such as canola oil.

    Coronary Heart Disease

    Like any other muscle, your heart needs oxygen. Hearts have arteries that provide oxygen through the blood. They are known as coronary arteries. Coronary heart disease is the end result of the buildup of plaque within the walls of the coronary arteries.

    Coronary heart disease often does not have any symptoms. A symptom of coronary heart disease is chest pain. Occasional chest pain can happen during times of stress or physical activity. The pain of angina means the heart muscle fibers need more oxygen than they are getting. Most people with coronary heart disease often have no symptoms for many years until they have a heart attack.

    A heart attack happens when the blood cannot reach the heart because a blood vessel is blocked. If cardiac muscle is starved of oxygen for more than roughly five minutes, it will die. Cardiac muscle cells cannot be replaced, so once they die, they are dead forever. Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death of adults in the United States. The image below shows the way in which a blocked coronary artery can cause a heart attack and cause part of the heart muscle to die (Figure below). Maybe one day stem cells will be used to replace dead cardiac muscle cells.

    When the coronary artery gets blocked, the heart gets starved of oxygen and eventually dies
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): A blockage in a coronary artery stops oxygen from getting to part of the heart muscle, so areas of the heart that depend on the blood flow from the blocked artery are starved of oxygen.


    Atherosclerosis in the arteries of the brain can also lead to a stroke. A stroke is a loss of brain function due to a blockage of the blood supply to the brain. Risk factors for stroke include old age, high blood pressure, having a previous stroke, diabetes, high cholesterol, and smoking. The best way to reduce the risk of stroke is to have low blood pressure.


    • Atherosclerosis is a condition in which the inside of arteries become clogged with plaque, a deposit of fatty material.
    • Atherosclerosis can be dangerous when it prevents blood circulation to the heart or the brain, causing a heart attack or stroke.

    Explore More

    Use the resource below to answer the questions that follow.

    1. What is coronary artery disease? What happens to someone who has coronary artery disease?
    2. What is congestive heart failure? How does this affect your body?


    1. What is atherosclerosis?
    2. What is the result of plaque growth?
    3. How are strokes and heart attacks similar?
    4. What are the causes of atherosclerosis?
    5. What are three ways to prevent atherosclerosis?

    This page titled 11.29: Cardiovascular Diseases is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by CK-12 Foundation via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.