Atherosclerosis: The New View; Tackling Major Killers: Heart Disease; Exclusive Online Issues; by Peter Libby; 10 Page(s)
As recently as five years ago, most physicians would have confidently described atherosclerosis as a straight plumbing problem: Fat-laden gunk gradually builds up on the surface of passive artery walls. If a deposit (plaque) grows large enough, it eventually closes off an affected "pipe," preventing blood from reaching its intended tissue. After a while the blood-starved tissue dies. When a part of the cardiac muscle or the brain succumbs, a heart attack or stroke occurs.
Few believe that tidy explanation anymore. Investigations begun more than 20 years ago have now demonstrated that arteries bear little resemblance to inanimate pipes. They contain living cells that communicate constantly with one another and their environment. These cells participate in the development and growth of atherosclerotic deposits, which arise in, not on, vessel walls. Further, relatively few of the deposits expand so much that they shrink the bloodstream to a pinpoint. Most heart attacks and many strokes stem instead from less obtrusive plaques that rupture suddenly, triggering the emergence of a blood clot, or thrombus, that blocks blood flow.