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Heart Disease: How To Reduce The Risk

What Is Heart Disease?

Monday, March 6, 2023 - 13:58
Contributors to this article: 

John Farquhar MD
Guy Slowik FRCS

Heart disease describes a variety of disorders and conditions that can affect the heart. The most common type of heart disease is coronary heart disease (CHD), also called coronary artery disease.

The word 'coronary' means crown, and it is the name given to the arteries that circle the heart like a crown. The coronary arteries supply the heart muscle with oxygen and nutrients.

The coronary arteries of the heart

Coronary heart disease develops when one or more of the coronary arteries that supply the blood to the heart become narrower than they used to be. This happens because of a buildup of cholesterol and other substances in the wall of the blood vessel, affecting the blood flow to the heart muscle.

  • Deposits of cholesterol and other fat-like substances can build up in the inner lining of these blood vessels and become coated with scar tissue, forming a bump in the blood vessel wall known as plaque.
  • Plaque build-up narrows and hardens the blood vessel, a process called atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.
  • Eventually these plaque deposits can build up to significantly reduce or block blood flow to the heart.

Cholesterol narrowing coronary artery

Many people experience chest pain or discomfort from inadequate blood flow to the heart, especially during exercise when the heart needs more oxygen. Without an adequate blood supply, heart muscle tissue can be damaged.

Although we typically think of atherosclerosis as a disease of old age, the process begins as early as childhood, making prevention of coronary heart disease a priority for everyone.

It's not easy to tell if you have coronary heart disease, since the disease rarely causes symptoms in its early stages. That is why it's important to see your physician regularly and evaluate your diet and lifestyle habits. Your physician can detect early warning signs of CHD, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels.

Need To Know:

What happens as coronary heart disease gets worse?

As coronary heart disease develops, more damage to the heart occurs and the following conditions may develop:

  • Angina

    As CHD progresses, build-up of cholesterol and other fat-like materials significantly reduces blood flow to the heart. If the heart is not getting enough oxygen, a person may experience pain or discomfort in the chest known as angina, especially during exercise or increased activity.

    Symptoms of angina include:

    • A feeling of discomfort or pressure felt in the chest, ranging from a vague ache to a crushing sensation
    • Pain or pressure in the left arm, shoulder, or throat
    • Difficulty catching your breath

    CHD is the most common cause of angina. Angina is a sign that the heart muscle is not receiving enough oxygen and nutrients. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of angina, you should be evaluated by a physician.

    For more detailed information on angina and its treatment, go to Angina.

  • Heart Failure

    Heart failure occurs when a weakened heart cannot pump efficiently, and fluid builds up in the ankles, legs, lungs, and other tissues. The combination of clogged blood vessels and high blood pressure often causes heart failure.

    For more detailed information on heart failure and its treatment, go to Heart Failure.

  • Heart Attack

    If blood flow to any part of the heart is completely blocked, the cells in that part of the heart begin to die, causing a heart attack. Heart attacks usually happen when a previously narrowed coronary artery is suddenly blocked or otherwise closed off.

    Symptoms of a heart attack vary widely for each person but can include:

    • Pain or pressure in the chest, shoulders or arms (most commonly on the left side), neck, or lower jaw.
    • Shortness of breath
    • Weakness
    • Rapid heart beat
    • Lightheadedness or faintness
    • Profuse sweating
    • Nausea or vomiting

For more detailed information on heart attack, go to Heart Attack.

Coronary artery disease; heart damage

Nice To Know:

The majority of people with heart problems suffer from coronary heart disease, but there also are other types of heart disease. These include:

  • Valve disease - disease of the heart's valves, which keep blood flowing in the right direction
  • Congenital heart disease - a heart defect that is present at birth
  • Inadequate pumping - caused by failure of the muscular walls of the heart (cardiac failure) or failure of the left side of the heart to work properly (left ventricular failure)
  • Cardiomyopathy - a disease that makes the heart muscle weak and causes it to enlarge
  • Viral myocarditis - caused by a virus that affects the heart muscle
  • Heart rhythm disorders - such as arrhythmia or palpitations.

    For further information on palpitations, go to Palpitations.

Facts About Heart Disease

  • More than 12 million Americans suffer from CHD. It is the No. 1 killer of adult Americans, both men and women.
  • The death rate from coronary heart disease (CHD) has fallen by 40 percent over the past 20 years. This drop is partly because more people are eating right and exercising regularly, and partly because of advances in medical care for those who do have heart disease.
  • One in ten women aged 45 to 64 has some form of heart disease. The rate increases to one in five for women 65 years of age and older.
  • Close to one-half of Americans with high blood pressure - an important risk factor for heart disease - don't even know they have it.
  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death in cigarette smokers.
  • Based on new weight-for-height guidelines, more than one-half of Americans are considered overweight or obese. Middle-aged men who are obese are three times more likely to have a heart attack than men of normal weight.
  • Deposits of cholesterol and other lipids, or fat-like substances, can begin to form on the artery wall as early as childhood. In studies of 22-year-old men killed during the Korean War, one-third had significant deposits in their arteries.
  • Only about one-quarter of American adults meet current recommendations for physical activity, which is a good way to help prevent heart disease.


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