Coronary artery disease (CAD), also referred to as coronary heart disease, is one of the conditions that falls under the general umbrella of “heart disease.” It is the most common form of heart disease, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more than 370,000 people die each year from CAD.
CAD develops when the coronary arteries, which are the main arteries that supply blood, oxygen and nutrients to the heart, become damaged or diseased. In most cases, a combination of cholesterol-containing deposits called plaque and inflammation are to blame. As the plaque builds up, the coronary arteries narrow and blood flow decreases substantially. Decreased blood flow causes chest pain, also known as angina, shortness of breath and other symptoms. A complete blockage of the artery results in a heart attack.
CAD usually takes decades to develop, so many people are unaware of their condition until they’ve had a heart attack or other emergent situation. This may seem alarming, but there are many preventive steps you can take to avoid having this situation happen to you.
Risk Factors for Coronary Artery Disease
There are a host of different risk factors that can come into play when it comes to CAD. They generally occur in groups and can build on one another. These risk factors include:
- Age – Getting older increases the risk of damaged and narrowed arteries.
- Sex – Men generally face a higher risk than women for developing CAD, although the risk for women increases following menopause.
- Family history – If someone in your family has had any heart disease, you face a higher likelihood for developing CAD. This is especially true if that family member developed heart disease at an early age (earlier than 55).
- High blood pressure – High blood pressure can cause hardening and thickening of the arteries, which narrows the channels through which blood is able to flow. This can lead to CAD.
- Smoking – Smoking greatly increases the risk for CAD. Exposure to secondhand smoke also increases the risk, so if you smoke then then people around you could ultimately develop heart disease.
- Diabetes – Type 2 diabetes, which is often caused by lifestyle factors, and CAD share many of the same risk factors.
- Weight – Being overweight or obese typically exacerbates other risk factors.
Treatment Options for Coronary Artery Disease
After discussing your medical history and performing diagnostic tests, your doctor will devise a treatment plan for your CAD management strategy.
Lifestyle changes are usually the top treatment advice from doctors, with medications and certain medical procedures added on as as-needed basis. Adopting the following healthy lifestyle habits can go a long way in helping to support healthier arteries:
- Quit smoking.
- Eat healthy foods.
- Exercise regularly.
- Lose excess weight.
- Reduce stress.
With respect to medications, your doctor will discuss the following drug options with you:
- Cholesterol-modifying medications like statins or niacin to lower the amount of cholesterol in the blood, which helps to decrease blockage in the coronary arteries.
- Aspirin or another daily blood thinner to lower the risk for blood blotting. If you’ve had a heart attack in the past, aspirin can also help to lower the risk of having another one.
- Beta blockers to lower blood pressure and reduce your heart rate, which ultimately lowers the heart’s demand for oxygen.
- Calcium channel blockers, which can help improve symptoms of chest pain and can be used with beta blockers if the beta blockers along are not effective.
- Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs), which can help prevent progression of CAD.
For more aggressive cases, your doctor may recommend surgical intervention to help keep arteries open. Stent placement surgery and bypass surgery are the two main options for severe cases of CAD.