Heart Disease

  • Coronary artery disease occurs when a substance called plaque builds up in the arteries that supply blood to the heart (called coronary arteries). Plaque is made up of cholesterol deposits, which can accumulate in your arteries. When this happens, your arteries can narrow over time. This process is called atherosclerosis. 


    Plaque buildup can cause angina, the most common symptom of CAD. This condition causes chest pain or discomfort because the heart muscle doesn't get enough blood. Over time, CAD can weaken the heart muscle. This may lead to heart failure, a serious condition where the heart can't pump blood the way that it should. An irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia, can also develop.


    For some people, the first sign of CAD is a heart attack. A heart attack occurs when plaque totally blocks an artery carrying blood to the heart. It also can happen if a plaque deposit breaks off and clots a coronary artery.


    Risk Factors


    Medical Conditions

    Blood Cholesterol Levels

    Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced by the liver or consumed in certain foods. It is needed by the body, and the liver makes enough for the body's needs. When there is too much cholesterol in the body—because of diet and the rate at which the cholesterol is processed—it is deposited in arteries, including those of the heart. This can lead to narrowing of the arteries, heart disease, and other complications.

    Some cholesterol is often termed "good," and some often termed "bad." A higher level of high–density lipoprotein cholesterol, or HDL, is considered "good," and gives some protection against heart disease. Higher levels of low–density lipoprotein, or LDL, are considered "bad" and can lead to heart disease. A lipoprotein profile can be done to measure several different forms of cholesterol, as well as triglycerides (another kind of fat) in the blood.


    High Blood Pressure

    High blood pressure is another major risk factor for heart disease. It is a condition where the pressure of the blood in the arteries is too high. There are often no symptoms to signal high blood pressure. Lowering blood pressure by changes in lifestyle or by medication can lower the risk of heart disease and heart attack.


    Diabetes Mellitus

    Diabetes also increases a person's risk for heart disease. With diabetes, the body either doesn't make enough insulin, can't use its own insulin as well as it should, or both. This causes sugars to build up in the blood. About three–quarters of people with diabetes die of some form of heart or blood vessel disease. For people with diabetes, it is important to work with a healthcare provider to help in managing it and controlling other risk factors.


    Heart Disease Behavior

    Tobacco Use

    Tobacco use increases the risk of heart disease and heart attack. Cigarette smoking promotes atherosclerosis and increases the levels of blood clotting factors, such as fibrinogen. Also, nicotine raises blood pressure, and carbon monoxide reduces the amount of oxygen that blood can carry. Exposure to other people's smoke can increase the risk of heart disease even for nonsmokers.



    Several aspects of peoples' dietary patterns have been linked to heart disease and related conditions. These include diets high in saturated fats and cholesterol, which raise blood cholesterol levels and promote atherosclerosis. High salt or sodium in the diet causes raised blood pressure levels.


    Physical Inactivity

    Physical inactivity is related to the development of heart disease. It also can impact other risk factors, including obesity, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, a low level of HDL (good) cholesterol, and diabetes. Regular physical activity can improve risk factor levels.



    Obesity is excess body fat. It is linked to higher LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels and to lower HDL (good) cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.



    Excessive alcohol use leads to an increase in blood pressure, and increases the risk for heart disease. It also increases blood levels of triglycerides which contributes to atherosclerosis.


    Heart Disease Heredity

    Heart disease can run in the family. Genetic factors likely play some role in high blood pressure, heart disease, and other vascular conditions. However, it is also likely that people with a family history of heart disease share common environments and risk factors that increase their risk. The risk for heart disease can increase even more when heredity is combined with unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as smoking cigarettes and eating a poor diet.

  • The National Heart Attack Alert Program notes these major symptoms of a heart attack:


    Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.


    Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. This can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.


    Shortness of breath. This often comes along with chest discomfort. But it also can occur before chest discomfort.


    Other symptoms. These may include breaking out in a cold sweat or experiencing nausea or light–headedness.

  • Your doctor will diagnose coronary heart disease (CHD) based on your medical and family histories, your risk factors, a physical exam, and the results from tests and procedures.


    No single test can diagnose CHD. If your doctor thinks you have CHD, he or she may recommend one or more of the following tests.


    EKG (Electrocardiogram)

    An EKG is a simple, painless test that detects and records the heart's electrical activity. The test shows how fast the heart is beating and its rhythm (steady or irregular). An EKG also records the strength and timing of electrical signals as they pass through the heart.

    An EKG can show signs of heart damage due to CHD and signs of a previous or current heart attack.


    Stress Testing

    During stress testing, you exercise to make your heart work hard and beat fast while heart tests are done. If you can't exercise, you may be given medicines to increase your heart rate.

    When your heart is working hard and beating fast, it needs more blood and oxygen. Plaque-narrowed coronary (heart) arteries can't supply enough oxygen-rich blood to meet your heart's needs.

    A stress test can show possible signs and symptoms of CHD, such as:

    Abnormal changes in your heart rate or blood pressure

    Shortness of breath or chest pain

    Abnormal changes in your heart rhythm or your heart's electrical activity

    As part of some stress tests, pictures are taken of your heart while you exercise and while you rest. These imaging stress tests can show how well blood is flowing in your heart and how well your heart pumps blood when it beats.



    Echocardiography (echo) uses sound waves to create a moving picture of your heart. The test provides information about the size and shape of your heart and how well your heart chambers and valves are working.

    Echo also can show areas of poor blood flow to the heart, areas of heart muscle that aren't contracting normally, and previous injury to the heart muscle caused by poor blood flow.


    Chest X Ray

    A chest x ray creates pictures of the organs and structures inside your chest, such as your heart, lungs, and blood vessels.

    A chest x ray can reveal signs of heart failure, as well as lung disorders and other causes of symptoms not related to CHD.


    Blood Tests

    Blood tests check the levels of certain fats, cholesterol, sugar, and proteins in your blood. Abnormal levels may be a sign that you're at risk for CHD. Blood tests also help detect anemia, a risk factor for CHD.

    During a heart attack, heart muscle cells die and release proteins into the bloodstream. Blood tests can measure the amount of these proteins in the bloodstream. High levels of these proteins are a sign of a recent heart attack.


    Coronary Angiography and Cardiac Catheterization

    Your doctor may recommend coronary angiography (an-jee-OG-rah-fee) if other tests or factors suggest you have CHD. This test uses dye and special x rays to look inside your coronary arteries.

    To get the dye into your coronary arteries, your doctor will use a procedure called cardiac catheterization (KATH-eh-ter-ih-ZA-shun).


  • If you have CAD, there are steps you can take to lower your risk for having a heart attack or worsening heart disease. Your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes such as eating a healthier diet, exercising, and not smoking.


    Medications may also be necessary. Medicines can treat CAD risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, an irregular heartbeat, and low blood flow. In some cases, more advanced treatments and surgical procedures can help restore blood flow to the heart.


    Life after an Attack

    If you've had a heart attack, your heart may still be damaged. This could affect your heart's rhythm, pumping action, and blood circulation. You may also be at risk for another heart attack or conditions such as stroke, kidney disorders, and peripheral arterial disease. But, there are steps you can take to lower your chances of having future health problems.


    Your doctor may recommend cardiac rehabilitation, which is a program that can help you make lifestyle changes to improve your heart health and quality of life. These changes may include taking medication, changing what you eat, increasing your physical activity, stopping smoking, and managing stress. Also, be sure to talk with your doctor about everyday activities. He or she may want you to limit work, travel, sex, or exercise.

  • You can help prevent heart disease by making healthy choices and managing any medical conditions you may have.


    Live a Healthy Lifestyle

    Eat a healthy diet.

    Choosing healthful meal and snack options can help you avoid heart disease and its complications. Be sure to eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.

    Eating foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in fiber can help prevent high blood cholesterol. Limiting salt or sodium in your diet can also lower your blood pressure.


    Maintain a healthy weight.

    Being overweight or obese can increase your risk for heart disease. To determine whether your weight is in a healthy range, doctors often calculate a number called the body mass index (BMI). Doctors sometimes also use waist and hip measurements to measure a person's excess body fat.


    Exercise regularly.

    Physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight and lower cholesterol and blood pressure. The Surgeon General recommends adults engage in moderate-intensity exercise for 2 hours and 30 minutes every week.


    Don't smoke.

    Cigarette smoking greatly increases your risk for heart disease. So, if you don't smoke, don't start. If you do smoke, quitting will lower your risk for heart disease. Your doctor can suggest ways to help you quit.


    Limit alcohol use.

    Avoid drinking too much alcohol, which causes high blood pressure. For more information, visit CDC's Alcohol and Public Health Web site.


    Prevent or Treat Your Medical Conditions

    If you have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes, there are steps you can take to lower your risk for heart disease.


    Have your cholesterol checked. Your health care provider should test your cholesterol levels at least once every five years. Talk with your doctor about this simple blood test.


    Monitor your blood pressure. High blood pressure has no symptoms, so be sure to have it checked on a regular basis.


    Manage your diabetes. If you have diabetes, closely monitor your blood sugar levels. Talk with your health care provider about treatment options.


    Take your medicine. If you're taking medication to treat high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes, follow your doctor's instructions carefully. Always ask questions if you don't understand something.


    Talk with your health care provider. You and your doctor can work together to prevent or treat the medical conditions that lead to heart disease. Discuss your treatment plan regularly and bring a list of questions to your appointments.

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    1. What can you do to reduce your risk?
    2. What should a bystander do if they think someone is having a heart attack?
    3. Why is there a need to act fast?
    4. What are symptoms of heart attack?
    5. What are the risk factors for heart disease?

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