What is coronary artery disease?

The coronary arteries are the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle. Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the presence of fatty deposits, or plaque, within the walls of the arteries. As the plaque accumulates it causes narrowing of the inside of the blood vessel and begins to interfere with blood flow to the heart muscle. The decrease in blood flow and delivery of oxygen to the heart may lead to symptoms of chest pain and/or shortness of breath. This is known as angina. Initially, the symptoms occur with physical activity. As the disease progresses the symptoms occur more frequently, are more intense, last for longer periods, and may even occur at rest. This is known as unstable angina and requires urgent medical attention. If left untreated, this may lead to a heart attack.

What is a heart attack?

When plaque in the wall of a coronary artery ruptures, a blood clot begins to form. The clot grows quickly inside of the blood vessel and causes complete blockage of the vessel. This is known as an acute myocardial infarction (MI) or heart attack. The sudden lack of blood flow begins to cause damage to the heart muscle. This requires emergency medical care. If blood flow is not restored within a relatively short time period the heart muscle may be permanently damaged.

What are the symptoms
of a heart attack?

Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes. It may feel like an uncomfortable pressure-like sensation or a squeezing sensation. The pain may travel to the arms, neck, or jaw. Associated symptoms may include shortness of breath, breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, and lightheadedness. Some individuals may experience shortness of breath without chest discomfort. Some may have less typical symptoms such as stomach pain or back pain. This is particularly true of women.

What are some
risk factors for CAD?

Risk factors for coronary artery disease include age (for men the risk increases after age 45 and for women after age 55) and family history of premature heart attack or stroke, as well as diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), cholesterol abnormalities (low good cholesterol or high bad cholesterol), smoking, and obesity.

What can you do to help prevent developing CAD?

A healthy lifestyle that includes a heart healthy diet, regular aerobic exercise, and maintaining a normal body weight can play a big role in preventing CAD. We can’t stop the aging process or change our genetic makeup, but we can modify many of the other risk factors. If you have any of the risk factors noted above it is important to follow up with your doctor for treatment.

Sometimes lifestyle modification alone is enough, and sometimes medications are required. If your doctor recommends medication to control you blood sugar, blood pressure, or cholesterol, make certain to take the medication as prescribed. If you are concerned that you may have CAD, speak with your doctor, as prompt detection and treatment can prevent a heart attack.