Coronary Artery Disease - What You Need to Know
Coronary arteries are the major pathways that supply a person’s heart with the blood, oxygen, and nutrients it needs to function correctly. Coronary artery disease occurs when one or more of those blood vessels becomes damaged, diseased, or otherwise dysfunctional. Common causes for coronary artery disease include plaque buildup and inflammation.
Plaque is a cholesterol-containing deposit that lodges itself to the inner walls of an artery, narrowing its diameter and leading to inadequate blood flow to the heart. If an artery becomes completely blocked, it can cause a heart attack.
The onset of coronary artery disease happens over decades, so problems can develop so gradually that you may not even notice until things become severe. Fortunately, coronary artery disease is treatable and preventable with healthy lifestyle changes.
Coronary Artery Disease Signs and Symptoms
Plaque buildup in coronary arteries deprives your heart of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to function properly, especially during physically demanding events like exercise. They may not be immediately apparent, but as plaque continues to build, the following symptoms will begin to manifest themselves:
- Chest pain – Also called angina, chest pain due to coronary artery disease often begins as a pressure – as if someone is standing on your chest. It typically occurs in the middle or on the left-hand side of the chest, and is often triggered by stress.
- Shortness of breath – As your arteries become more restricted, your heart may not be able to move enough blood to meet your body’s needs, resulting in shortness of breath or severe fatigue.
- Heart attack – In its most severe form, coronary artery disease can lead to a heart attack. Traditional signs and symptoms of the onset of a heart attack include severe pressure in your chest, shoulder, or arm, often accompanied by shortness of breath. Women are more likely to experience the less-common symptoms of heart attack like neck or jaw pain.
Causes of Coronary Artery Disease
It is thought that coronary artery disease begins first with damage to the innermost wall of the artery. Damage can come from a variety of sources, including:
- Tobacco use
- Elevated blood pressure
- Elevated cholesterol levels
- Inactive or sedentary lifestyle
After the interior of a coronary artery is damaged, it becomes more prone to the accumulation of plaque and other deposits. If plaque forms and then breaks or ruptures, blood platelets will clump together to try and repair the damage, further restricting blood flow.
Other risk factors for coronary artery disease include:
- Age – As we get older, we are naturally more prone to artery blockage
- Sex – Men are statistically at a greater risk, though risk for women increases after menopause
- Obesity – While on its own it does not lead to coronary artery disease, obesity makes other risk factors more severe
Coronary Artery Disease Treatment and Prevention
Lifestyle choices that treat coronary artery disease are also effective tools for preventing its formation. Leading an overall healthy life can help keep your arteries free and clear of plaque. Healthy choices include:
- Giving up smoking
- Keeping risk factors like elevated blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes under control
- Making physical activity part of your daily routine
- Avoiding excessive fats and salt, and eat a diet plentiful in fruits and vegetables
- Keeping your bodyweight in a healthy range
- Taking measures to reduce stress in your life
Because uncontrollable hereditary factors can also play a role in coronary heart disease, it is recommended that you regularly visit your physician to monitor your vascular health.