Arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, is a degeneration of the arteries in the body, making them hard and inelastic. It is usually associated with atherosclerosis, which is the excessive deposition of hard fatty plaques and nodules within the artery and its wall.
It usually occurs in the elderly, and those who have a high blood level of cholesterol, but may also be caused and aggravated by high blood pressure. Hard fatty deposits form at points of turbulence within a major artery (e.g. the junction of two arteries where the artery branches out, or at a bend in the artery) to narrow the artery and gradually restrict the flow of blood to the tissues beyond.
Atherosclerosis will narrow the artery and make it more likely to rupture or leak blood, sometimes into vital structures such as the brain. If a neck artery (carotid artery) is involved, patients cannot cope with sudden changes in position (e.g. getting out of bed) without becoming dizzy or light-headed. If the leg arteries are involved, the leg muscles become painful, particularly when climbing slopes or stairs (claudication). If heart arteries are involved, angina occurs. If arteries to the brain are involved, the patient may develop a multitude of bizarre symptoms, become light headed, dizzy, confused, or blackout as the brain does not receive sufficient blood to operate correctly.
An embolism occurs when a piece of the hard fat within the artery, breaks away, and travels with the blood along the arteries to a point that is too narrow for it to pass. This causes no problem in most parts of the body, but if the blockage is in the heart or brain, a heart attack or stroke will occur.
Arteriosclerosis is diagnosed by doppler flow (ultrasound) studies on the movement of blood through arteries, and by angiograms (artery x-rays) in which an x-ray visible dye is injected to outline an artery. Cholesterol levels can be checked by a fasting blood test.