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How does Artery Plaque Build up?

By Adam Hill
Updated Feb 27, 2024
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Arteries are the part of the human circulatory system through which blood carries oxygen and other nutrients throughout the body. Most arteries carry oxygenated blood away from the heart to every system of the body. The interior of arteries is normally smooth and unobstructed, but as a person ages, a sticky substance commonly called plaque can develop and build up on the interior walls. The presence of artery plaque to some degree is almost universal in adults, especially older adults, but excessive buildup can be caused by damaged arterial walls, due to factors such as poor diet and smoking.

Refraining from smoking remains the best way for individuals to reduce their risk of plaque buildup and disease. Apart from blocking blood flow in vital arteries, small pieces of plaque can sometimes become dislodged. If these pieces become lodged in the brain or heart, they can cause a person to suffer from heart attack or stroke.

Coronary artery disease, also called heart disease, is the most common cause of death in the United States in both men and women. It is brought about by the buildup of artery plaque in the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart muscle itself. Without adequate oxygen, the heart cannot pump a sufficient amount of blood, causing the rest of the body to therefore lack oxygen.

Buildup in the coronary arteries and elsewhere occurs when the normally smooth arterial lining becomes damaged. This damage creates a rough spot on which plaques can accumulate. Plaques actually form partly as a result of the body’s natural healing mechanisms, which attempt to heal the damaged artery. Artery plaque is made of fibrous tissue, cholesterol, and calcium. As more damage occurs and more plaque builds up, it causes the artery walls to lose elasticity and harden, a condition called atherosclerosis.

Damage to artery walls is usually caused by such factors as smoking, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. High blood pressure is a particularly insidious cause of artery damage, because it can strike a person even when he or she is relatively healthy and doesn’t smoke. It injures artery walls in the same way that a raging river will erode its banks much faster than one that flows steadily and calmly. Regular exercise and a healthy diet, often coupled with prescription medications, can lower blood pressure to a safer range. Diet and exercise also reduce the amount of fatty acids and cholesterol in the blood, slowing plaque formation.

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Discussion Comments
By Saraq90 — On Aug 14, 2011

@snickerish - The only connection I have read about is that it is thought by some professionals that the plaque in your teeth can actually become the plaque in your gums may be able to enter your arteries now through your bloodstream. I don't know that this has been scientifically proven or another rumor, but it gives us just one more reason to floss, huh?

By snickerish — On Aug 14, 2011

I had always thought it was interesting that the word plaque was used to describe the sticky stuff on your teeth and the sticky stuff in your arteries.

Is there any connection between the two?

By Moldova — On Aug 13, 2011

@Lluviaporos- That is generally true but you really have to have regular checkups with your doctor because many people develop plaque in their arteries and don’t realize it until they suffer from a heart attack.

I have heard of a lot of seemingly healthy people that suffer from a heart attack that you would never suspect. As a matter of fact, I heard about a case about a cardiologist that was a marathon runner that looked like a picture of health until he suffered from a heart attack and needed quadruple bypass surgery.

If a person like this can develop plaque in their arteries that led to a heart attack and this type of surgery, it really can happen to anyone.

I think that is why it is referred to as the silent killer because many people don’t realize that they have problems until it is too late. They also say that more women die of this disease than men do because the symptoms are often ignored or diagnosed for something else.

Knowing your cholesterol and blood pressure helps, but it doesn't replace a check up with the doctor regardless of how healthy you think you are.

By lluviaporos — On Aug 13, 2011

Exercise is one of the best ways of making sure that you don't develop heart disease later in life. Even just walking every day will make a huge difference.

Of course, coupling that with a vegetable rich diet will also help, as well as keeping your stress levels relatively low.

Apparently if you maintain those three things in your life, exercise, low stress and vegetables, you will generally not develop a lot of plaque, even if you are overweight.

The mechanisms for heart disease are not entirely understand as far as I can see, but generally I think if you live in moderation, you won't go too far wrong.

By pastanaga — On Aug 12, 2011

Although people talk a lot about cholesterol causing heart disease and artery plaque, lately it seems the research is pointing more towards trans fats than anything else.

Even saturated fats, which contain a lot of the supposedly bad cholesterol, don't do nearly as much damage as the trans fats.

These are fats that have been damaged by heat. So, they are often found on fried foods and in things like margarine.

So, if you have a choice, you should avoid them as much as possible. Eating them regularly can cause artery plaque build up, like almost nothing else.

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