What Is Coronary Artery Disease?

You probably do not give much thought to your heart until something goes wrong with it. Weighing a little less than three-quarters of a pound, it has the Herculean task of pumping oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood through the 60,000-mile highway of blood vessels to all the tissues of the body. Your heart does this nonstop, decade after decade, for as long as you live.

If your physician has diagnosed you with coronary artery disease, also called coronary heart disease, you are not alone; more than 15 million Americans suffer from this health problem.

Coronary artery disease is diagnosed when the arteries that carry blood to the heartsss become narrowed by the buildup of deposits called plaques within the artery walls.

This process, which is known as atherosclerosis, impairs the ability of the body to pump enough blood through the coronary arteries to provide adequate oxygen and nutrients to the heart. Even worse, formation of a blood clot on top of a ruptured plaque can cause a fatal heart attack.

Coronary artery disease complications

Coronary artery disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women in the United States and can lead to serious complications, including angina, heart attacks, heart failure, and arrhythmias.

• Angina. Also known as angina pectoris, angina refers to an episode of chest pain that results from reduced blood flow to the heart. Angina affects more than 8 million Americans.

• Heart attack. Technically referred to as a myocardial infarction, a heart attack occurs when complete blockage of a coronary artery interrupts blood flow to a portion of the heart muscle, causing death of heart tissue. Each year, about 635,000 Americans will have a first heart attack and 300,000 more will have a repeat attack.

• Heart failure. This medical condition is diagnosed when the heart is unable to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. Heart failure affects 5.1 million people in the United States.

• Arrhythmias. Abnormal heartbeats are called arrhythmias. Atrial fibrillation—one of the most common arrhythmias—affects about 2.7 million people in the United States.

Most individuals have one or more risk factors that increase their chances of developing coronary artery disease. But if you can identify and control your risk factors, you can help prevent or delay the development and progression of coronary artery disease.

Sometimes, however, comprehensive preventive efforts are not sufficient. Fortunately, you and your doctor can manage those disorders with a combination of lifestyle measures, medications, and revascularization procedures (such as angioplasty/stenting and bypass surgery).

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HealthAfter50 was published by the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, providing up-to-date, evidence-based research and expert advice on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of a wide range of health conditions affecting adults in middle age and beyond. It was previously part of Remedy Health Media's network of digital and print publications, which also include HealthCentral; HIV/AIDS resources The Body and The Body Pro; the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter; and the Berkeley Wellness website. All content from HA50 merged into Healthcentral.com in 2018.