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Coronary artery disease (CAD) is impaired blood flow in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. Also known as called coronary heart disease (CHD), CAD is the most common form of heart disease and affects approximately 16.8 million Americans. It’s also the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. It’s estimated that every 34 seconds someone in the United States will have a heart attack. A heart attack can come from untreated CAD.
The most common cause of CAD is plaque buildup in the arteries, or atherosclerosis. Reduced blood flow occurs when one or more of these arteries becomes partially or completely blocked.
The four primary coronary arteries are located on the surface of the heart:
These arteries bring oxygen and glucose-rich blood to your heart. Your heart is a muscle that’s responsible for pumping blood throughout your body. According to the Cleveland Clinic, a healthy heart moves approximately 3,000 gallons of blood through your body every day. Like any other organ or muscle, your heart must receive an adequate, dependable supply of blood in order to carry out its work. Reduced blood flow to your heart can cause symptoms of CAD.
Other rare causes of damage or blockage to the coronary artery also limit blood flow to the heart.
When your heart doesn’t get enough blood, you may experience a variety of symptoms. Angina (chest discomfort) is the most common symptom of CAD. Some people describe this discomfort as:
Other symptoms of CAD include:
You may experience more symptoms when your blood flow is more restricted. If a blockage cuts off blood flow completely, your heart muscle will start to die. This is a heart attack. Do not ignore any of these symptoms, especially if they last longer than five minutes. Immediate medical treatment is necessary.
Women may also experience the above symptoms, but they’re also more likely to have:
Due to decreased blood flow, your heart may also:
Your doctor will detect these heart abnormalities during diagnosis.
Understanding the risk factors for CAD can help with your plan to prevent or decrease the likelihood of developing the disease.
Risk factors include:
The risk for CAD also increases with age. Men have a greater risk for the disease beginning at age 45, and women have a greater risk beginning at age 55. The risk for coronary artery disease is also higher if you have a family history of the disease.
Diagnosing CAD requires a review of your medical history, a physical examination, and other medical testing. These tests include:
Electrocardiogram: This test monitors electrical signals that travel through your heart. It helps your doctor determine whether you’ve had a heart attack.
Echocardiogram: This imaging test uses sound waves to create a picture of your heart. The results of this test reveal whether your heart is functioning properly.
Stress test: This particular test measures the amount of blood flow to your heart during physical activity and while at rest. The test monitors your heart while you walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike.
Cardiac catheterization: During this procedure, your doctor injects a special dye into your cardiac arteries through a catheter inserted through your groin or arm. The dye helps create an image of your coronary arteries and identify any blockages.
Heart CT scan: Your doctor may use this imaging test to check for calcium deposits in your arteries.
It’s important to reduce your risk factors and seek treatment to lower the chance of a heart attack or stroke, if you’re diagnosed with CAD. Treatment also depends on your current health condition, risk factors, and overall wellbeing. For example, your doctor may prescribe medication to treat high cholesterol or high blood pressure, or you may receive medication to control blood sugar if you have diabetes.
Lifestyle changes can also reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. For example:
If your condition does not improve with lifestyle changes and medication, your doctor may recommend a procedure to increase blood flow to your heart. These procedures may be:
Everyone’s outlook for CAD is different. You have better chances of preventing extensive damage to your heart the earlier you can start your treatment or implement lifestyle changes. It is important to follow your doctor’s instructions. Take medications as directed, and make the recommended lifestyle changes. If you have a higher risk for CAD, you can prevent the disease by reducing your risk factors.
Written by: the Healthline Editorial Team and Valencia Higuera
Medically reviewed on: Dec 16, 2016: Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, CNE, COI
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