The general term for plaque buildup in the arteries is atherosclerosis. When this buildup is specifically in the arteries of the heart, the condition is called coronary artery disease.
Plaque is a waxy, fatty substance that can build up in the large arteries of the body and cause health issues. This buildup in the arteries, which can happen anywhere in the body, is known as atherosclerosis.
When plaque accumulates in the arteries that supply the heart with blood, it’s known as coronary artery disease.
Atherosclerosis is the
Around half of American adults between the ages of
This article will take a closer look at atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease, and how these conditions differ.
This chronic inflammatory condition most often affects:
- coronary arteries (heart)
- carotid arteries (neck)
- arteries in the legs
Sometimes plaque can break away from the artery wall and cause blood clots that block blood flow to major organs — like the heart or brain — and cause serious complications.
Atherosclerosis versus arteriosclerosis
Arteriosclerosis is the medical term for a hardening of the artery walls. This condition is marked by a loss of elasticity in the artery wall fibers. When the artery walls are stiff, blood flow is restricted and pressure builds, potentially causing high blood pressure (hypertension).
Atherosclerosis, caused by the buildup of plaque, is a
Plaque is a thick, sticky substance made up of cholesterol, fat, waste products, calcium, and fibrin (a clotting material) within the blood. When this plaque builds up in the arteries that supply the heart with blood, it’s known as coronary artery disease.
The narrowing of the coronary arteries can be chronic (plaque slowly accumulates over time) — or acute (a sudden rupture of plaque causes a blood clot that reduces blood flow to the heart).
The main difference between these two conditions is that atherosclerosis is an umbrella term for plaque buildup throughout the body. Coronary artery disease refers to the buildup of plaque specifically in the arteries of the heart.
Since plaque buildup can impact various parts of the body (heart, brain, legs, arms), atherosclerosis has different names depending on the areas that are affected.
Can you have coronary artery disease without atherosclerosis?
There is another form of coronary artery disease called non-obstructive coronary artery disease. While less common than obstructive coronary artery disease that’s caused by plaque buildup, it can be just as serious.
Non-obstructive coronary artery disease can be caused by various factors, such as:
- damage to the inner lining of the coronary arteries
- vasospasm (constriction of the arteries)
- issues with small blood vessels around the arteries
- pressure from surrounding heart muscle tissue
Atherosclerosis may not have any symptoms, especially in the
- Coronary artery disease: Symptoms may include chest pain (angina), heart palpitations, dizziness, fatigue, weakness, or nausea. A heart attack is a serious complication.
- Peripheral artery disease: Peripheral artery disease may cause symptoms such as aching, cramping, heaviness, or pain in the legs that eases with rest.
- Vertebral artery disease: Symptoms of vertebral artery disease may include memory loss, issues with focus, concentration or decision making, numbness or weakness on one side, and vision issues. A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is a serious complication.
- Mesenteric artery ischemia: Symptoms of mesenteric artery ischemia may include unintentional weight loss, diarrhea, and intestinal pain after meals.
Workup for coronary artery disease may include tests such as:
- exercise stress test
- cardiac catheterization
- coronary angiogram
- coronary artery calcium scan
Screening for atherosclerosis typically begins around age
Treatment for coronary artery disease may include medications such as:
- cholesterol-lowering drugs
- angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors to help reduce blood pressure
- beta-blockers to help the heart relax
- antiplatelet drugs like aspirin to prevent blood from clotting and restricting blood flow in the arteries
Atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease are caused by the buildup of plaque that results in the narrowing of the arteries. Coronary artery disease refers specifically to the narrowing of the arteries that supply the heart with blood, whereas atherosclerosis refers to narrowed arteries anywhere in the body.
Lifestyle changes like eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and quitting smoking, may help reduce your risk for these conditions.
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have concerns about the possible buildup of plaque in your arteries. Your doctor can discuss your risk factors, order tests, and suggest prevention or treatment measures as needed.