The heart is one of the body’s strongest and most essential organs. Pumping about 100,000 times daily, the heart circulates blood throughout the entire body in seconds. Over time, the heart is susceptible to several diseases and conditions, including coronary artery disease (CAD). Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America. Identifying the signs of this disease and receiving prompt treatment is essential to living a long, healthy life.
What is coronary artery disease?
The heart is a large muscle that requires oxygenated blood like all others. The coronary arteries provide blood to the heart muscles for healthy function. Should these arteries become blocked, diseased, or damaged, the heart cannot function effectively. Over time, CAD can lead to several severe conditions that are life-threatening.
Once cholesterol, now plaque
Clogged or blocked arteries almost always cause coronary artery disease. Excess cholesterol, a waxy substance in the blood, deposits into damaged parts of the artery walls. White blood cells start the inflammatory process on the cholesterol deposits, creating atherosclerosis. Over time, the cholesterol and white blood cells build up into plaque, which limits blood flow to the heart. In other words, coronary artery disease develops plaque in the blood vessels to the point where the heart becomes disrupted. Other common causes of CAD include diabetes, smoking, and hypertension. These can all damage the coronary artery walls, leading to severe complications.
Don’t miss the signs
Some people can have coronary artery disease for years without symptoms. The arteries can still send enough blood to supply the heart. However, most people eventually develop symptoms that can’t be ignored. A common sign of CAD is stable angina, a tight chest pain that occurs during physical activity. Since more blood and oxygen are required, the heart muscles become strained. Lightheadedness, shortness of breath, fatigue, and arm or shoulder pain accompany angina. These symptoms stop with rest. Over time, plaque buildup can lead to blood clots, unstable angina, heart attacks, and heart failure.
Beware the risk factors
Why do some people get CAD over others? Coronary artery disease has several risk factors. For instance, some hereditary factors cause CAD. Men and menopausal women are also at higher risk. Advanced age, obesity, stress, a lack of exercise, and poor sleep are other potential causes. Additionally, some studies show conditions like sleep apnea and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) cause CAD. Make sure to see a doctor for an assessment or bring up any concerns about risk factors during an annual wellness visit.
A doctor will recommend a series of tests before confirming coronary artery disease. These can include echocardiograms, electrocardiograms, computerized tomography (CT) scans, and stress tests. Cholesterol tests can also help the doctor with a diagnosis. From there, treatment options can range from medication to surgery. Common medications include statins, beta-blockers, and angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors. These medications help by controlling cholesterol levels, blood flow, blood pressure, and much more. Some medicine, like vasodilators, can help with angina symptoms. However, for severe or potentially life-threatening cases, surgery may be necessary. A surgeon can widen the artery and then use a stent to keep the artery in place.
Living with CAD
Some people can go on to live long lives with CAD. However, the risk of heart attacks or other life-threatening conditions is much higher. In addition, coronary artery disease is nearly irreversible. However, appropriate treatment and adopting healthier habits can slow the progression of the disease. Removing alcohol, smoking, excess fats, sugars, and processed foods is crucial. Investing in a nutritious diet, exercise program, and stress reduction also helps. Frequent check-ups can identify risk factors like high cholesterol, hypertension, or diabetes. Focus on heart health to tackle coronary artery disease.