Coronary artery disease (CAD) occurs when the coronary arteries of the heart become damaged or diseased. The coronary arteries are the main blood vessels of the heart that provide it with oxygen, blood and essential nutrients. When cholesterol, calcium, or other substances from the blood build up over a period of time, plaque can develop on the walls of the coronary arteries. This causes the arteries to stiffen and become narrow, which limits the blood flow to the heart. The decreased blood flow eventually causes signs and symptoms such as chest pain or shortness of breath.
There are about 17 million people in the United States who have coronary artery disease. Because CAD often develops over a number of years, a person may not experience any symptoms until they have a heart attack. If signs and symptoms do occur, they may include chest pain or discomfort that occurs during physical exercise or activity, shortness of breath, pain in the arm, back, or jaw, heart palpitations, weakness, dizziness, sweating or irregular heartbeat. However, it is possible that the first symptom of coronary artery disease is sudden cardiac arrest.
The risk factors for coronary artery disease include:
· Family history. If you have a family history of CAD, your risk for CAD increases. This is especially true if you have an immediate relative who developed CAD at an early age. The risk is highest if you have a father or brother who was diagnosed with heart disease before age 55 or a mother or sister who developed it before age 65.
· Age. The risk for CAD increases as you age.
· Sex. Men are at a greater risk of developing CAD than women. For women, the risk goes up after going through menopause.
· High blood cholesterol levels. High blood cholesterol levels can increase the risk of the formation of plaque and atherosclerosis.
· High stress. Stress that is persistent and untreated can raise your risk for CAD.
· Obesity. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of developing CAD. It also makes other risk factors worse.
· Smoking. Smoking increases your risk for CAD as the nicotine constricts the blood vessels while carbon monoxide can damage the inner lining of blood vessels, which makes it more likely for atherosclerosis to develop.
· High blood pressure. If high blood pressure is left untreated or is not managed properly, the arteries can harden and thicken which causes the arteries to become narrow, limiting blood flow.
· Lack of physical activity. Not getting enough physical activity can raise your risk for CAD.
· Diabetes. Diabetes increases the risk of CAD.