Coronary artery disease (CAD), also called heart disease, refers to the narrowing of heart arteries due to atherosclerosis (see below). The heart muscle does not get enough oxygen when heart arteries are narrowed. If the heart is starved of oxygen, chest pain (angina) occurs. If an artery is completely blocked, a heart attack results. A heart attack is medically referred to as a myocardial infarction (MI). CAD is the most common form of heart disease, and heart attack is a leading killer of both men and women.
Many of these deaths can be prevented because some risk factors for CAD are controllable. Some of these controllable risk factors include high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, and diabetes. There are other controllable risk factors related to lifestyle, such as not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, reducing alcohol consumption, and getting physically active.
Although medical treatments for heart disease have come a long way, controlling risk factors remains the key to preventing illness and death from CAD.
A low supply of oxygen in the heart is most often caused by atherosclerosis, also called "hardening of the arteries." In this condition, fatty deposits called plaques form in the linings of the blood vessels. The plaques make the arteries narrower as they build up, and less blood is able to get through to the heart, depriving it of oxygen.
Atherosclerosis is often the result of too much "bad" cholesterol (low density lipoprotein, or LDL) and triglycerides circulating in the bloodstream.
You are at risk for developing atherosclerosis and CAD if you:
- have high levels of "bad" (LDL) cholesterol
- low levels of "good" (HDL, or high density lipoprotein) cholesterol
- have high blood pressure
- are a smoker
- have diabetes
- lead a sedentary lifestyle
- are overweight (particularly if you are obese in the torso or have a large waist circumference)
- have a family history of heart disease
- consume alcohol excessively
Occasionally, a genetic condition can cause atherosclerosis, leading to heart disease.
Men run a higher risk of developing the disease than premenopausal women. After menopause, the incidence of CAD in women increases, and can be equal to men.