What is Coronary Artery Disease?

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common type of heart disease. You also may know it as cardiovascular disease, hardening of the arteries, atherosclerosis or arteriosclerosis. The majority of the time, it is caused by a gradual build up – of cholesterol, scar tissue or calcium in an artery – that restricts blood flow. The material that builds up in an artery is called plaque.

A coronary artery is a blood vessel that carries blood to your heart muscle. When plaque narrows the artery, blocking or slowing the flow of blood and oxygen through the heart, serious health problems can occur, including angina (pain or pressure in the chest) and heart attack.

Who gets coronary artery disease?

Anyone can get it. Family history is one of the most important risk factors. If either of your parents had heart disease in their 40s or 50s, the chances are greater that you are going to have coronary artery disease. It also might develop as you age because cholesterol has built up in your arteries over the years.

Other risk factors include:

  • High blood pressure
  • High-fat diet
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Physical inactivity
  • Smoking
  • Stress

Many of the controllable risk factors are lifestyle issues, which stem from making unhealthy choices. Smoking, for example, doubles your risk for a heart attack. The good news here is that as people become more health-conscious, the numbers for death from heart disease are going down. A perfect example is the smoking ban instituted in restaurants. Almost every city that has the ban has reported fewer heart attacks.

Symptoms of coronary artery disease include:
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Heaviness, tightness or pressure
  • Aching, burning or fullness
  • Numbness or squeezing

If any of these symptoms last longer than 5 minutes, call 911 immediately. You may be having a heart attack.