What you need to know about coronary artery disease (CAD)

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Your heart is responsible for circulating thousands of gallons of blood through your body each day.

The heart acts as the pump and the coronary arteries are responsible for bringing blood to the heart muscle so it can do its job said Dr. Bradford Warden, Mon Health Cardiologist. And if those tubes become blocked, the heart must work harder to do its job.

“When our coronary arteries become damaged, the heart is starved of the necessary blood, oxygen and nutrients it needs to pump throughout our bodies,” says Dr. Warden. “A buildup of plaque, made up of cholesterol and fat, is usually to blame for the narrowing and damage of these major blood vessels, otherwise known as coronary artery disease.”

Coronary artery disease is the most common type of heart disease in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In some cases, symptoms of the disease may gradually appear, signaling you to see a doctor—for others, the very first sign is a heart attack.

Symptoms of coronary artery disease

According to Dr. Warden, decreased blood flow to the heart may not present any symptoms at first. As the disease becomes more severe, however, the following symptoms may begin to appear:

  • Chest pain – Chest pain, also called “angina”, is often the first symptom of coronary artery disease. It usually appears during stressful events or strenuous activity, such as an emotional conversation or physical exercise. It may feel like a pressure or tightness on the chest, says Dr. Warden, but can also be felt in the neck, arm or back.
  • Shortness of breath – Insufficient blood flow can cause shortness of breath, usually worsened by activity. Dr. Warden says this symptom may make you feel as though you can’t get enough air, or simply can’t catch your breath during physical exertion.
  • Fatigue – As your heart overexerts itself to keep up with the body’s demands, you may feel a lack of energy or overwhelming fatigue.
  • Heart attack – If a coronary artery becomes entirely blocked, it can cause a heart attack. Heart attacks from coronary heart disease can accompany other symptoms or can be the first and only symptom of the disease.

What causes coronary artery disease?

While plaque buildup is the obvious culprit for coronary artery disease, several lifestyle habits and risk factors increase your chances of developing the illness, says Dr. Warden.

“There are a number of ways arteries become clogged or damaged—many of them preventable,” said Dr. Warden. “Damage can begin as early as childhood and worsen as we age.”

Dr. Warden lists the following as causes for coronary heart disease:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Diabetes
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Poor diet
  • High stress

Risk factors for coronary heart disease

In addition to preventable causes, Dr. Warden says there are other risk factors that increase chances for developing the disease. They include:

  • Family history – A family history of heart disease, especially in close relatives, increases the chances of developing coronary heart disease.
  • Age – The risk for damaged arteries increases as we age.
  • Sex – Men have a higher chance of developing coronary heart disease. The risk for women, however, increases after menopause.
  • Race – Because African Americans have increased chances for severe high blood pressure, they have an increased risk for coronary heart disease.

Ways to prevent coronary heart disease

While some factors are out of our hands, says Dr. Warden, there are many things we can do to prevent heart disease.

“We can’t control for things like family history or age,” said Dr. Warden. “But we can make small decisions like increasing activity levels and choosing healthier meals—small changes really add up.”

Ways to prevent coronary artery disease include:

  • Quitting smoking and other tobacco products
  • Exercise at least 30 minutes per day
  • Know your numbers (blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, etc.)
  • Eat a healthy, nutritious diet
  • Stay within a healthy weight range
  • Find ways to reduce and/or manage stress

When to see a doctor

If you have risk factors for coronary heart disease or feel you may be experiencing symptoms, schedule an appointment with your doctor right away. He or she can assess you for the illness and help you take steps to improve your health.

If you suspect you’re having a heart attack, call 9-1-1.

Read more about heart disease myths and misconceptions.

Schedule an appointment with Dr. Warden.