What is coronary artery disease?
disease occurs when fatty deposits called
plaque (say "plak") build up inside the coronary
arteries. The coronary arteries wrap around the heart and supply it with blood
and oxygen. When plaque builds up, it narrows the arteries and reduces the
amount of blood that gets to your heart. This can lead to serious problems,
Coronary artery disease
(also called CAD) is the most common type of heart disease. It is also the
number one killer of both men and women in the United States.
can be a shock to find out that you have coronary artery disease. Many people
only find out when they have a heart attack. Whether or not you have had a
heart attack, there are many things you can do to slow coronary artery disease
and reduce your risk of future problems.
What causes coronary artery disease?
Coronary artery disease is
caused by hardening of the arteries, or
atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis occurs when plaque
builds up inside the arteries. (Arteries are the blood vessels that carry
oxygen-rich blood throughout your body.) Atherosclerosis can affect any
arteries in the body. When it occurs in the arteries that supply blood to the
heart, it is called coronary artery disease.
Plaque is a fatty
material made up of cholesterol, calcium, and other substances in the blood. To
understand why plaque is a problem, compare a healthy artery with an artery
- A healthy artery is like a rubber tube. It is smooth and
flexible, and blood flows through it freely. If your heart has to work harder,
such as when you exercise, a healthy artery can stretch to let more blood flow
to your body's tissues.
- An artery with atherosclerosis is more like a clogged pipe.
Plaque narrows the artery and makes it stiff. This limits the flow of blood to
the tissues. When the heart has to work harder, the stiff arteries can't flex
to let more blood through, and the tissues don't get enough blood and oxygen.
See a picture of
a normal artery and an artery narrowed by plaque .
When plaque builds
up in the coronary arteries, the heart doesn't get the blood it needs to work
well. Over time, this can weaken or damage the heart. If a plaque tears, the
body tries to fix the tear by forming a blood clot around it. The clot can
block blood flow to the heart and cause a heart attack. See a picture of
how plaque causes a heart attack .
What are the symptoms?
Usually people with coronary artery disease don't
have symptoms until after age 50. Then they may start to have symptoms at times
when the heart is working harder and needs more oxygen, such as during
exercise. Typical first symptoms include:
Chest pain or discomfort, called
angina (say "ANN-juh-nuh" or "ann-JY-nuh").
- Shortness of breath.
- Heart attack. Too often, a heart attack is the first symptom of
coronary artery disease.