Heart Disease Common Coronary Artery

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in America, and of all forms of heart and cardiovascular disease, coronary artery disease is the most common (CDC, 2010). Protect yourself from this deadly disease by understanding its causes, symptoms and risk factors.

Causes of Coronary Heart Disease

Coronary artery disease (also known as coronary heart disease) happens when the large coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle become hardened and narrowed. This arterial hardening is called atherosclerosis, and it takes place when the coronary arteries become obstructed by waxy deposits called “plaque.” If enough plaque accumulates to block blood flow through an artery, the portion of the heart muscle supplied by that artery becomes deprived of oxygen and nutrients. The cells and tissues of that portion become starved and damaged, and this can cause pain in the chest (angina). It may also cause death if the heart stops beating altogether.

Plaque accumulation and atherosclerosis can take place very slowly, sometimes over decades, and may go unnoticed until heart attack symptoms occur. The process actually starts very early, even before adulthood.

Symptoms of Coronary Artery Disease

Blockage in coronary arteries often becomes apparent when the heart is beating very hard, as it does after vigorous exercise. When the heart is working hard it requires more oxygen and nutrients, and if the blood supply is blocked during these moments, the symptoms of atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease may become evident.

If the blockage causes a heart attack, sharp pain in the chest may occur, with or without additional pain in the shoulder, arm, back or jaw.

Since the damaged heart cannot continue pumping blood to the rest of the body, shortness of breath, sweating or nausea may also take place.

Not all of these symptoms occur in all heart attack sufferers. If you suspect that you may be having a heart attack, call 911 or have someone drive you to the hospital. Drive yourself if you need too, but do not ignore one or more of these symptoms.

Heart Disease Risk Factors

The most common risk factors for coronary artery disease are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and diabetes. Plaque accumulates more easily inside of a damaged artery, since the site of the injury or damage forms a gathering point for deposits. Those who have damaged coronary arteries due to smoking, radiation therapy to the chest, diabetes or high blood pressure are more likely to experience blockage. Genetics also play a role, and the risk of coronary artery disease increases with age.

Prevention

To protect yourself from coronary heart disease (and many other forms of cardiovascular disease) take the following steps:

  • Control your blood sugar carefully if you have diabetes and stop smoking if you smoke.
  • Eat a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and one to two servings of fish per week. Avoid saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.
  • Exercise and maintain a healthy weight. 30 to 60 minutes of activity per day is appropriate for most people.
  • Monitor your cholesterol and blood pressure. Most health people should have LDL cholesterol levels below 130 grams per milliliter, and blood pressure below 120 systolic over 80 diastolic.

For additional information, heart attack statistics and more on the causes and symptoms of chest pain, visit our section on Coronary Artery Disease.

Resources

Centers for Disease Control. (2010). Heart disease is the number one cause of death. Retrieved October 25, 2010, from http://www.cdc.gov/features/heartmonth/

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2010.) Coronary disease. Retrieved October 26, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/coronary-artery-disease/DS00064

Medline Plus. (2010.) Coronary artery disease. Retrieved October 26, 2010, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/coronaryarterydisease.html

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. (2010.) What is coronary artery disease? Retrieved October 26, 2010, from http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/Cad/CAD_WhatIs.html