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User's Manual: Your Heart

What Atherosclerosis Looks Like in Your Body

atherosclerosis

Credit: Getty Images

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Healthy blood vessels

Arteries are delicate and complex structures. They are constantly expanding and contracting in response to chemical cues and the body's moment-to-moment needs. When you exercise, for instance, arteries dilate to allow more oxygen-rich blood to reach your heart and muscles. In cold weather, meanwhile, arteries in the extremities constrict to conserve heat in the body's core.

Atherosclerosis, a build-up of fatty plaque due to poor diet and lack of exercise, can damage arteries from your head to your toes. It can make them stiff and slow to respond to cues for more oxygen, and lead to strokes, heart attacks, erectile dsyfunction, kidney failure, leg cramps, vision loss, and other problems.

Next: Unhealthy cholesterol

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