Frequently Asked Questions About Heart Disease

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on June 04, 2022
3 min read

Atherosclerosis is also called hardening of the arteries. When the lining inside an artery is damaged, fat and plaque build up. This causes the artery walls to thicken, and the blood vessel narrows or sometimes gets blocked.

Coronary artery disease is a form of atherosclerosis. It’s when the arteries that supply blood to the heart narrow, which can lower the supply of oxygen-rich blood to the heart, especially when your heart beats faster, like during exercise. Extra strain on the heart may result in chest pain (called angina) and other symptoms.

About 30% of 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 in smoke causes:

  • Less oxygen to the heart
  • Higher blood pressure and heart rate
  • More blood clotting
  • Damage to cells that line coronary arteries and other blood vessels

There are some risk factors that you can't do anything about. These include:

  • Being male
  • Being a woman who is past menopause
  • Being older
  • Having a family history of heart attack or coronary artery disease

Other risk factors can be controlled. These include:

  • Smoking
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Lack of exercise
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Stress

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

You can do several things to cut your chances of heart disease. If your arteries are already clogged, you can slow the damage with a healthier diet, exercise, quitting smoking, and reducing stress. With lifestyle changes, you can stop or even reverse the narrowing of arteries. While this is important for those with risk factors for the disease, it is even more important if you have had a heart attack or procedure to restore blood flow to your heart or other areas of your body.

Eating right is a powerful way to reduce or even eliminate some heart disease risk factors. A heart-healthy diet can help cut total and LDL ("bad") cholesterol, lower blood pressure, lower blood sugar, and help you shed pounds.

Try these tips:

  • Eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes.
  • Cut trans fats from your diet. Swap saturated fats for unsaturated ones.
  • Eat lean sources of protein, such as chicken, fish, and soy. Avoid red meat, as this tends to be high in fat and cholesterol.
  • Eat complex carbohydrates such as whole-grain bread, rice, and pasta and limit simple carbohydrates such as regular soda, sugar, and sweets.
  • Cut down on salt.
  • Exercise regularly.

Cholesterol is a soft, waxy material made in the liver. It’s in foods such as egg yolks, milk fat, organ meats, and shellfish.

You can lower your high cholesterol levels by eating foods low in saturated fats, sugar, and calories.

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
  • Problems during pregnancy, such as preeclampsia, high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, or elevated sugars
  • Rheumatologic and inflammatory diseases