Arteriosclerosis is a term used to describe a thickening, hardening or loss of elasticity in arterial walls. Atherosclerosis is the most common form of arteriosclerosis and involves progressive degeneration of the inner lining of the arteries - especially where arteries bifurcate - and the build up of a fatty plaque that covers this arterial damage. If left untreated, the plaque grows and gradually restricts the flow of blood. When occlusion reaches close to 100 per cent, or when a floating embolus - undissolved matter - becomes lodged in a narrowed opening, the blood supply is suddenly cut off, resulting in a heart attack, stroke, or gangrene, depending on where the restriction occurs. Ischaemia refers to the gradually diminishing blood supply caused by the build-up of arterial plaque. As ischaemia progresses in coronary arteries, it can cause angina pectoris. As it progresses in the legs in can cause intermittent claudication. Diabetics are particularly prone to arterial damage and ischaemia, making them vulnerable to gangrene and retinopathy.
It is believed that the build up of plaque is initiated by free radical damage to the artery wall. Free radicals mutate the DNA of arterial cells, causing them to replicate themselves many times over. The proliferating cells form, in effect a mini-tumour in the artery wall. This tumour-like growth expands, stretching and tearing the inner lining of the artery. The blood lays down fibrin to patch the tears. Minerals and debris circulating in the blood become trapped in the patch. Because of opposing electromagnetic charges, the trapped minerals attract fats, including cholesterol. This cholesterol serves two purposes: (1) It gives the patch a slippery surface so that blood cells can glide past it, and (2) It acts as an antioxidant of last resort by donating electrons to neutralise free radicals, thus itself becoming oxidised in the process. Cholesterol is one of the last ingredients to form plaque, not the first. Contrary to popular myth, cholesterol does not directly cause heart disease.
Arteriosclerosis can remain undetected for many years. In fact nearly half of all people in the western world who die from cardiovascular related illnesses never experience any prior symptoms!