The Pathology of Atherosclerosis: Plaque Development and Plaque Responses to Medical Treatment

William Insull

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

400 Scopus citations


Atherosclerosis develops over the course of 50 years, beginning in the early teenage years. The causes of this process appear to be lipid retention, oxidation, and modification, which provoke chronic inflammation at susceptible sites in the walls of all major conduit arteries. Initial fatty streaks evolve into fibrous plaques, some of which develop into forms that are vulnerable to rupture, causing thrombosis or stenosis. Erosion of the surfaces of some plaques and rupture of a plaque's calcific nodule into the artery lumen also may trigger thrombosis. The process of plaque development is the same regardless of race/ethnicity, sex, or geographic location, apparently worldwide. However, the rate of development is faster in patients with risk factors such as hypertension, tobacco smoking, diabetes mellitus, obesity, and genetic predisposition. Clinical trial data demonstrate that treatment with 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl coenzyme A reductase inhibitors (statins) favorably alters plaque size, cellular composition, chemical composition, and biological activities centered on inflammation and cholesterol metabolism, as well as the risk of clinical events due to atherosclerosis. Even with advanced atherosclerosis, statins begin to improve clinical risk within 4 months. During long-term follow-up in clinical trials for up to 11 years with or without further treatment, clinical benefit remains significant, indicating the durability of treatment-induced changes in the development of plaque. Thus, atherosclerosis, a disease heretofore viewed as inevitably progressive, can be treated to significantly alter arterial lesions and reduce their clinical consequences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)S3-S14
JournalAmerican Journal of Medicine
Issue number1 SUPPL.
StatePublished - Jan 2009


  • Atherosclerosis
  • Inflammation
  • Plaque

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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