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Frequently Asked Questions About Heart Disease

  • What is atherosclerosis?
  • Answer:

    Atherosclerosis, often described as a hardening of the arteries, occurs when the normal lining of the arteries deteriorates, the walls of arteries thicken, and deposits of fat and plaque build up, causing narrowing (or even blockage) of the arteries.

    Coronary artery disease is a form of atherosclerosis. In coronary artery disease, the arteries that supply blood to the heart become severely narrowed, decreasing the supply of oxygen-rich blood to the heart -- especially during times of increased activity. Extra strain on the heart may result in chest pain (angina) and other symptoms.

  • What's the link between smoking and heart disease?
  • Answer:

    About 30% of all deaths from heart disease in the U.S. are directly related to cigarette smoking. Smoking is a major cause of atherosclerosis.

    Among other things, the nicotine present in smoke causes:

    • Decreased oxygen to the heart
    • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
    • Increase in blood clotting
    • Damage to cells that line coronary arteries and other blood vessels, triggering atherosclerosis and heart disease

  • What are the risk factors for coronary artery disease?
  • Answer:

    Conditions that increase a person's risk for heart disease, also called coronary artery disease, are called risk factors. There are some risk factors that you can't do anything about. These include:

    Other risk factors, fortunately, can be controlled. These include:

    By improving lifestyle habits, you can reduce your risk of heart attack or angina.

  • What should I do if I have risk factors for coronary artery disease?
  • Answer:

    There are many things you can do to decrease your risk of developing heart disease. If the artery-clogging process has already begun, you can slow the rate at which it progresses by improving your diet, exercising, quitting smoking, and reducing stress. With very careful lifestyle modification, you can stop or even reverse the narrowing of arteries. While this is very important for everyone with risk factors for the disease, it is even more important if you have had a heart attack and/or procedure to restore blood flow to your heart or other areas of your body.

  • What dietary changes can I make to reduce my heart disease risk?
  • Answer:

    Eating right is a powerful way to reduce or even eliminate some heart disease risk factors. Adopting a heart-healthy nutrition strategy can help reduce total and LDL ("bad") cholesterol, lower blood pressure, lower blood sugar, and reduce body weight.

    To reduce your risk of heart disease, try these tips.

    • Increase your intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes.
    • Limit fat intake. When you use added fat, use fats high in mono- and polyunsaturates only.
    • Eat lean sources of protein, such as chicken, fish, and soy.  Avoid red meat, as this tends to be high in fat and cholesterol.
    • Limit intake of cholesterol.
    • Eat complex carbohydrates (such as whole-grain bread, rice, pasta) and limit simple carbohydrates (such as regular soda, sugar, sweets).
    • Eat small but frequent meals throughout the day (for example, eating five to six mini-meals).
    • Reduce salt intake.
    • Exercise regularly.
    • Drink 32 to 64 ounces of water daily (unless you are fluid restricted).

  • What is cholesterol?
  • Answer:

    Cholesterol is a soft waxy like material that is made in the liver of animals. Animal foods such as egg yolks, milk fat, organ meats, and shellfish, contain cholesterol too.

    In many people, an elevated blood cholesterol level (hypercholesterolemia) is caused by excessive intake of foods high in saturated fats, cholesterol, and calories. Reducing intake of these products can reduce cholesterol levels. Limit intake to 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day.

  • How common is heart disease among women?
  • Answer:

    Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women over 40 years old, especially after menopause. Once a woman reaches the age of 50 (about the age of natural menopause), the risk for heart disease increases dramatically. In young women who have undergone early or surgical menopause, the risk for heart disease is also higher, especially when combined with other risk factors such as:

    • Diabetes
    • Smoking
    • High blood pressure
    • High blood cholesterol, especially high LDL or "bad" cholesterol
    • Obesity
    • Lack of exercise
    • Family history of heart disease

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Thomas M. Maddox, MD on June 11, 2012

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