Coronary artery disease forms when a waxy substance builds up on the interior walls of the coronary arteries. Over time, the buildup of plaque in the arteries can restrict oxygen-rich blood from reaching the heart muscle. Doctors might describe coronary heart disease using other names including arteriosclerosis, heart disease, hardening of the arteries, narrowing of the arteries, or ischemic heart disease.
Typically, this condition develops over many years. At some point, the plaque can rupture or harden causing significant problems that potentially claim the life of the patient. The hardened plaque reduces blood flow to the heart and ruptured plaque buildups can allow a blood clot to form and completely or mostly block the flow of blood to the coronary artery.
Heart attacks are often the result of the restriction of oxygen-rich blood from reaching the heart muscle that causes a heart attack or angina. Suffering a heart attack requires quick treatment to avoid death or other serious health problems. Angina usually produces major discomfort or pain in the chest that feels as though it is being squeezed with intense pressure. The pain can also appear in other areas of the body including the back, jaw, neck, arms, and shoulders. Many individuals associate angina with the sensation of indigestion.
Coronary artery disease can lead to coronary heart disease because the heart muscle becomes weakened. This condition typically produces arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) and heart failure when there is not sufficient blood pumped through the body to ensure all tissue and organs are fed nutrients and oxygen.
Who Gets Coronary Artery Disease?
Both men and women are equally affected by coronary artery disease that continues to be the leading cause of death in both genders. Statistics maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that more than 375,000 individuals are diagnosed with coronary artery disease every year in America. Most of these deaths are the result of a buildup of plaque on the interior walls of the ordinary arteries.
Certain risk factors increase the potential for developing the disease. These include:
- Gender and Age – On average, women 55 years and older are more susceptible to developing coronary artery disease. This number is much lower in men, with an average age of 45 years. While men are more likely to develop the condition early in life, the risks of death by the disease is equal in both genders who are 75 years or older.
- Ethnicity – Certain ethnic groups in the United States are more susceptible to developing and dying from coronary artery disease. These include Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, Pacific Islanders, and Asian Americans. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released statistics stating that African American women and men are 30 percent more likely to succumb to coronary artery disease compared to Caucasian (white) women and men.
- Genetic Predisposition – Unfortunately, coronary artery disease is one of the conditions that can run in the family. Statistics maintained by the World Hearts Federation revealed that patients with a close family member diagnosed with heart disease are more likely to develop a heart condition before age 55. Additionally, those who inherit Type I diabetes from a family member are likely to develop some trait or disease that increases the potential risk of coronary artery disease.
- Smoking – Smoking tobacco products can significantly reduce the risk of developing coronary artery disease, especially in individuals with family history of the condition or women who are taking birth control pills.
- High Blood Pressure – The American Park Association recommends that individuals diagnosed with high blood pressure take specific action to reduce their numbers to minimize the potential risk of developing coronary artery disease. These actions include losing weight, consuming a healthy diet, minimizing alcohol consumption, managing stress, and exercising routinely.
- Elevated Cholesterol Levels – High levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) can significantly increase your potential risk of developing coronary artery disease.
- Physical Inactivity – Research indicates that exercise can lower the potential risk of developing coronary artery disease because it lowers blood pressure, strengthens the heart muscle, raises HDL (good) cholesterol levels, and provides better overall health. In addition, routine exercise helps minimize the potential of developing diabetes, becoming obese, or suffering some other condition that can cause coronary artery disease.
- Obesity and Being Overweight – Carrying around excess weight can increase blood pressure, cause the development of diabetes, and produce other serious health problems that can eventually lead to the development of coronary artery disease. Individuals with a BMI of 25 or higher, especially if that excess weight surrounds the body's midsection, have the greatest risk of developing coronary artery disease, compared to others who are in shape.
- Diabetes – The patient can develop diabetes when the body can no longer produce sufficient amounts of insulin or utilize the insulin already available in the bloodstream. The diabetic condition often leads to the development of coronary artery disease due to obesity.
- Potential Risk Factors – Certain behaviors are known to increase potential risk for developing all types of heart disease including coronary artery disease. This includes the illicit use of illegal medications, especially cocaine, can significantly increase your chance of developing life-threatening heart diseases.
Diagnosing Coronary Artery Disease
To accurately diagnose coronary artery disease, the doctor will likely complete a physical examination, take a medical history, and perform diagnostic tests that include an EKG, blood laboratory tests, and invasive testing including cardiac catheterization to get a close look at the interior walls of the coronary arteries.
Other diagnostic tests that may provide more conclusive diagnosis include nuclear imaging using radiation and ultrasounds to create graphic images of the structures of the heart, its pumping action and how and where the blood flows. Radiographic tests including x-rays, MRI and CT scans can produce pictures of the internal structures of the heart muscle and chest.
Treating Coronary Artery Disease
Doctors have many options for treating coronary artery disease, including recommending healthy lifestyle changes, prescribing medications, using alternative medicines, and performing procedures that improve or restore the flow of blood.
- Lifestyle Changes – The doctor will likely recommend the patient eat healthy foods, quit smoking, reduce their stress levels, exercise often, and lose their excess weight.
- Medications – The doctor will likely prescribe cholesterol-modifying drugs, aspirants, beta blockers, ACE inhibitors, nitroglycerin, and others to treat or manage many of the symptoms and conditions associated with coronary artery disease.
- Procedures to Improve Blood Flow – The doctor can perform various procedures to improve blood flow including a stop placement operation, angioplasty, and coronary artery bypass surgery.
- Alternative Medicines – Many doctors see the benefit of using alternative medicines to treat some of the symptoms of coronary artery disease including omega-3 fatty acids, flax seed oil and flax and supplements including artichoke, barley, garlic, blonde psyllium, oat bran, coenzyme Q10, and alpha-linolenic acid.
The many treatment options provide the opportunity oxygenated rich blood to the heart muscle and reduce the symptoms and signs of coronary artery disease. However, the best outcomes are usually produced when the patient receives early medical attention before the disease can progress to a life-threatening condition.