The broad term “heart disease” can mean many things. Today, the more precise terminology for heart disease is “coronary artery disease (CAD)” or “coronary heart disease (CHD).” Here’s what you need to know to keep your ticker ticking.
WHAT IS CORONARY ARTERY DISEASE?
We think of the heart as a pump, but it’s actually a muscle. Like any other muscle, the tissues of the heart must be supplied with oxygen. Small blood vessels called the coronary arteries deliver oxygen to the heart muscle.
When the coronary arteries become blocked with plaque — a thick, waxy substance that can build up inside the arterial walls — the arteries cannot deliver oxygen to one or more areas of the heart muscle. This is called coronary artery disease. If a major coronary artery becomes blocked, it can trigger a deadly heart attack. For this reason, you should learn how to keep your coronary arteries healthy.
WHAT CAUSES CORONARY ARTERY DISEASE?
As you age, your blood vessels naturally become stiffer and less supple than when you were younger. In addition, your arteries may develop plaques inside them. Researchers haven’t pinpointed exactly what causes plaques to develop. Diet and genetics probably play a role. Researchers do know that exercise and maintaining a healthy weight can reduce your risk of developing plaques within your coronary arteries.
RISK FACTORS FOR DEVELOPING HEART DISEASE
No one can completely eliminate their chance of developing coronary artery disease. You probably have heard about extremely athletic people who nonetheless died of a heart attack. That does not mean you should not try to reduce your risk, however.
You may be more likely to develop heart disease if you have any of these risk factors:
- Age. Heart disease is more prevalent in men over age 45 and in women over age 65.
- Family history. If a parent or sibling was diagnosed with coronary artery disease before age 55, you have a greater chance of also developing heart problems.
- Smoking. Inhaled tobacco is known to cause hardening of the arteries.
- Hypertension (high blood pressure). Hypertension itself is considered a form of “heart disease.” High blood pressure puts you at increased risk of coronary artery disease.
- Overweight. Obese people are more likely to have one or more types of heart disease, including coronary artery disease.
- Diabetes type 1 or 2. High blood sugar levels due to problems making or using insulin can accelerate the development of arterial plaques.
- Physical inactivity. Vigorous exercise can help prevent plaques from accumulating inside your arterial walls.
- Poor eating habits. Consuming foods that contain saturated fats and/or trans fats can increase levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol in the blood.
- High serum (blood) cholesterol levels. High levels of LDL cholesterol and/or low levels of “good” HDL cholesterol may increase your risk of developing heart disease.
SYMPTOMS OF HEART DISEASE
Coronary artery disease is often labeled a “silent killer” because it offers no warning signs. However, as your heart disease becomes more advanced, you may experience these symptoms:
- Moderate to severe chest pain (called “angina”)
- Chest pain that occurs with activity or stress, then goes away on its own
- Shortness of breath on exertion (such as climbing stairs)
- Fatigue after exertion
- General, ongoing weakness of unexplained origin
If you have these symptoms, you should consult your health care provider for testing. Do not confuse these symptoms with the signs of a heart attack, which is a medical emergency that requires immediate intervention. Signs of a heart attack include:
- Severe crushing or squeezing pain in the chest
- Shortness of breath
- Vomiting or nausea
- Feeling like you have severe indigestion
- Severe chest pain that radiates down the left arm or up into the jaw area
- Severe pain at the mid-back (more common in women)
- Feelings of anxiety
If you or a loved one experiences these symptoms, call 911 immediately. Do not attempt to drive yourself or another person to the emergency room.
HEART DISEASE PREVENTION
One of the best ways to prevent heart disease is to eat a good diet. A good diet is one that contains plenty of natural fiber from fruits and vegetables, little saturated fat and minimally processed food. You can find many resources on the web that can help you improve your diet.
Exercise also is a key to reducing your risk of a heart attack or heart disease. After checking with your doctor, engage in moderate to vigorous activity three times a week. This can be as simple as walking or playing with your children at the park.
If you smoke, quit today. In fact, if quitting smoking is the only action you take to prevent heart disease, you will reduce your risk tremendously. Your healthcare provider can help you quit.
TREATMENT FOR CORONARY ARTERY DISEASE
Your healthcare provider may use several interventions to treat existing coronary artery disease. The treatment depends on how advanced the disease is. You may need to take drugs that lower your cholesterol or blood pressure. Or you may need a surgical procedure that places a stent in one or more coronary arteries to hold them open. The first step in treating heart disease is getting a diagnosis. If you feel you may have heart problems, don’t delay in contacting your health care provider.