Whitney Houston's Death: What Is Atherosclerosis?

Medical Author: Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM
Medical Editor: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

It should come as no surprise that Whitney Houston's autopsy showed that she had died because of atherosclerotic heart disease. After all, heart attack is the most common cause of death in the United States. It's the words that get in the way of understanding what happened to Ms. Houston and almost 600,000 victims of heart disease every year. Atherosclerosis describes narrowing and “hardening” of the arteries and when the arteries in the heart get too narrow, disaster happens.

The heart is a muscle and like any other muscle in the body. It needs enough blood supply to provide oxygen to every one of its cells. The coronary arteries supply heart muscle cells with blood, but that blood supply can be decreased if plaque, a buildup of cholesterol and calcium, starts to narrow the artery. If the artery narrows enough, when the heart works harder during exercise or activity, there may not be enough blood flow and oxygen delivery causing the heart muscle to ache. Welcome to angina. Now, if you run too hard and your legs ache you can stop. If you lift too much and yours arms get sore, you can stop. Your heart can't stop beating and classically, the pain of angina makes the patient stop their activity or slow down to give the heart a chance to catch up. If the plaque in a coronary artery ruptures, it can cause a blood clot to form that prevents any blood flow and the heart muscle downstream loses all its oxygen and dies. This is a heart attack or myocardial infarction.