© 2015 The Authors. The Journal of Physiology © 2015 The Physiological Society.
Atherosclerosis is a disease of ageing in that its incidence and prevalence increase with age. However, atherosclerosis is also associated with biological ageing, manifest by a number of typical hallmarks of ageing in the atherosclerotic plaque. Thus, accelerated biological ageing may be superimposed on the effects of chronological ageing in atherosclerosis. Tissue ageing is seen in all cells that comprise the plaque, but particularly in vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMCs). Hallmarks of ageing include evidence of cell senescence, DNA damage (including telomere attrition), mitochondrial dysfunction, a pro-inflammatory secretory phenotype, defects in proteostasis, epigenetic changes, deregulated nutrient sensing, and exhaustion of progenitor cells. In this model, initial damage to DNA (genomic, telomeric, mitochondrial and epigenetic changes) results in a number of cellular responses (cellular senescence, deregulated nutrient sensing and defects in proteostasis). Ultimately, ongoing damage and attempts at repair by continued proliferation overwhelm reparative capacity, causing loss of specialised cell functions, cell death and inflammation. This review summarises the evidence for accelerated biological ageing in atherosclerosis, the functional consequences of cell ageing on cells comprising the plaque, and the causal role that VSMC senescence plays in atherogenesis.