Coronary Artery Disease
The term “heart disease,” also known as cardiovascular disease, covers a lot of ground. It’s used for a variety of problems with the circulatory system, from high blood pressure to abnormal heart rhythms. Most of the time, though, when people speak of heart disease what they really mean is coronary artery disease—a narrowing of the coronary arteries. No wider than a strand of spaghetti, each coronary artery deliver bloods to hard-working heart muscle cells. The cause of coronary artery disease is almost always atherosclerotic plaque—gooey cholesterol-filled deposits that form inside artery walls. Plaque is usually the result of an unhealthy diet, too little exercise, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, and other “insults” that damage the lining of artery walls.
When a coronary artery becomes clogged with plaque, it can’t always deliver enough blood to the heart muscle cells it is supposed to supply. Sometimes this doesn’t cause any noticeable symptoms. Sometimes it causes angina — chest pain that occurs with physical exertion or stress. Coronary artery disease can also be the root cause of a heart attack, or lead to the chronic condition known as heart failure. Coronary artery disease affects millions. Once limited almost entirely to older people, it is now beginning to appear in younger folks, a change driven by the rising tides of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Coronary artery disease isn’t an inevitable part of growing older. A healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, a healthy diet, and not smoking goes a long way to preventing it, especially when started at a young age. Lifestyle changes and medications can also reverse coronary artery disease, or at least prevent it from getting worse.