Coronary artery disease is the most common type of heart disease. This disease is characterized by narrow coronary arteries that block blood flow to the heart muscle.
When coronary arteries block blood from traveling to the heart muscle, this can lead to several life-threatening conditions, including heart attack, heart failure or sudden cardiac arrest. Complete blockage of the coronary arteries results in a heart attack.
Coronary artery disease is also called heart disease and ischemic heart disease. This heart condition is caused by a buildup of fatty plaques (cholesterol deposits) in the arteries, which is often the result of unhealthy lifestyle factors.
An estimated 18.2 million adults ages 20 and older have coronary heart disease, and it is known as the leading cause of death among men, women and most ethnicities¹.
Fortunately, heart disease is treatable and preventable, but early diagnosis is critical. If left untreated, coronary heart disease will almost certainly lead to death.
Causes of Coronary Artery Disease
The heart has two main coronary arteries (major blood vessels) that contain several branches of smaller arteries. These arteries deliver oxygen-rich blood directly to the heart muscle. Blood must be able to flow freely through the coronary arteries to the heart to ensure a healthy, functioning heart and body.
Various lifestyle factors, especially diet and exercise, can impact blood flow through the arteries. When a person consumes a diet high in fats and cholesterol, this causes a buildup of plaque on the walls of the arteries.
Over time, a process called atherosclerosis occurs. This process causes plaque to harden on the artery walls, which clogs the arteries and obstructs blood flow. Atherosclerosis may occur due to any of these heart disease causes:
- Eating a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet
- Living a sedentary life
- Damage to the coronary arteries that causes plaque accumulation at the site of injury²
Heart Disease Risk Factors
There are a number of factors that increase the risk of heart disease. These include:
- Having an existing health condition: diabetes, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, anxiety or depression
- High cholesterol (high LDL or low HDL cholesterol)
- High triglycerides in the blood
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Obesity and having excess weight
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Lack of physical activity
- Smoking or chewing tobacco
- Older age (65 and up)
- Genetics and having a family history of heart disease
Heart Disease Symptoms
Common symptoms of heart disease are related to overworking the heart as it pumps harder to compensate for narrowing or clogged arteries.
In many cases, symptoms will not appear until a cardiac event takes place. This may be a heart attack, stroke, heart failure or cardiac arrest.
Potential symptoms of heart disease include:
- Chest pain and discomfort (angina)
- Shortness of breath
- Weakening muscles
- Nausea and vomiting
- Cardiac event: stroke, heart attack or cardiac arrest
Chest pain may feel like a tingling sensation, tightness, pressure or burning. Pain can originate in the center of the chest or the left side of the chest. These symptoms are often confused with heartburn, acid reflux and indigestion.
Symptoms can Also Differ for Men and Women.
In many cases, heart disease develops 7 to 10 years later in life for women than men³. Women are also more likely to experience the following symptoms:
- Back pain (between the shoulder blades)
- Jaw pain
- Neck pain
- Abdominal discomfort
- Indigestion symptoms
Men with coronary artery disease are more likely to experience:
- Pain in one or both arms
- Severe chest pressure
- Arrhythmia (heart palpitations)
Diagnosis of Coronary Artery Disease
Prevention is always the best treatment. It is critical that coronary heart disease is caught early before serious heart damage takes place. Early intervention can prevent death and treat challenging symptoms that hinder a person’s quality of life significantly.
Be sure to visit your UCF Health doctor for a check-up at least once yearly. Your doctor will perform a physical exam, assess for risk factors, check your blood pressure and order routine blood work to monitor cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood.
If you are concerned about your heart health and are in need of preventive screening, we encourage you to schedule an appointment with our board-certified cardiologist, Dr. Bernard Gros.
Dr. Gros is a Level 3-trained echocardiography physician—the highest level achievable. Our cardiology team has the experience necessary to ensure that your health is thoroughly assessed and risk factors are monitored.
To diagnose coronary artery disease, any of the following tests may be performed:
- Coronary event monitoring – This test uses a portable device to monitor and record electrical activity in the heart for weeks or months at a time. For patients who experience heart arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) or chest pain, coronary event monitoring can provide insight into the nature of these cardiac events.
- Stress echocardiogram – Stress echocardiograms can help identify decreased blood flow in the blood vessels, by recording electrical activity during exercise.
- High-sensitivity CRP (hs-CRP) test – This test measures the level of CRP (C-reactive protein that indicates inflammation) in the blood to help determine the risk of heart disease.
- Coronary angiography – A coronary angiography test includes the insertion of a catheter into an artery. A special dye is then injected into the bloodstream to highlight the path of blood through the bloodstream. Our cardiologist will then examine the x-ray image to determine if blood flow to the heart is restricted.
Treatment of Coronary Heart Disease
If coronary artery disease is diagnosed or risk factors are identified, treatment may include non-surgical treatments, surgically-implanted devices, medical procedures or surgery depending on the severity of the case.
The most effective treatment route for coronary heart disease is determined on an individual basis. With any treatment method chosen, it is important that heart-healthy lifestyle changes are also made.
Lifestyle Changes to Prevent and Treat Heart Disease
Treatment plans for heart disease are aimed to minimize risk factors, treat symptoms and prevent further damage to the heart.
1. Get more physical activity.
Active lifestyles reduce stress on the heart by improving blood flow and circulation. Lack of physical activity forces the heart to work harder to pump blood to the muscles, reduces blood flow and contributes to plaque buildup in the arteries.
The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week to strengthen the heart³. Try walking, running, swimming or biking for 30 minutes a day, 5 times a week!
2. Eat a heart-healthy diet.
Nutrition is medicine. Your diet alone can significantly increase or decrease the risk of heart disease.
A few of the most damaging foods for the heart include saturated fats, trans fats, added sugars and processed meats. Some of the best heart-healthy snacks and food items include nuts and seeds, vegetables and leafy greens, fruits, legumes and fish.
Consistent aerobic exercise and a diet high in fruits and vegetables help to promote cardiovascular health and decrease the risk of coronary heart disease and heart attack⁴.
Tips for a heart-healthy diet:
- Keep daily sodium intake below 1,500 mg per day.
- Keep daily saturated fat intake below 11 grams.
- Increase your omega-3 fatty acid intake with olive oil, walnuts and flaxseeds.
- Maintain a healthy weight to prevent overworking your heart.
3. Kick unhealthy habits for good.
Certain habits such as smoking or chewing tobacco, using illegal drugs and overindulging in alcohol increase the risk of heart disease.
Smoking is proven to increase plaque buildup in the coronary arteries. According to the CDC, smoking is one of the leading causes of cardiovascular disease and is responsible for about one in every four deaths from cardiovascular disease⁵.
Alcohol and illegal drugs are known to increase blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke. Breaking these habits helps support proper blood flow and strengthen heart function.
Medications to Treat Heart Disease
If lifestyle changes alone aren’t sufficient, medication may be necessary to manage symptoms. Common medications for heart disease include:
- Aspirin to thin the blood and prevent blood clots for proper blood flow
- Cholesterol medication to break up plaque buildup in the arteries and reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol levels
- Beta blockers to lower the heart rate and reduce the risk of heart attack
- Calcium channel blockers to reduce chest pain
- Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs) to lower blood pressure and treat hypertension
Patients who have numerous risk factors for sudden cardiac events may be prescribed one of the following surgically-implanted devices:
- Pacemaker – A pacemaker is a portable device implanted into the chest to deliver electrical signals to the heart and regulate the heartbeat.
- Implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) – The ICD device is implanted through the chest into the heart to continuously monitor the heart rate and deliver electric shocks to the heart muscle if necessary.
If a device or medication isn’t sufficient to support blood flow and strengthen heart function, open-heart surgery may be necessary. Surgery for coronary artery disease is called a coronary artery bypass graft (CABG.)
The CABG technique helps the blood bypass clogged areas of the arteries and reroutes them to increase oxygen-rich blood supply to the heart.
Schedule an Appointment with a Leading Cardiologist in Orlando.
Our cardiologist in Orlando, Dr. Bernard Gros, places heavy emphasis on making healthy lifestyle changes and reducing the risk of cardiac episodes before they occur. We want you to know how to strengthen your heart.
For patients at risk of heart disease, Dr. Gros will create a personalized treatment plan that treats symptoms and optimizes heart health. Our team at UCF Health will help you restore your quality of life.
- “Heart Disease Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7 Feb. 2022, https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm#:~:text=Coronary%20Artery%20Disease&text=About%2018.2%20million%20adults%20age,have%20CAD%20(about%206.7%25).&text=About%202%20in%2010%20deaths,less%20than%2065%20years%20old.
- “Coronary Artery Disease.” Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, https://www.heartandstroke.ca/heart-disease/conditions/coronary-artery-disease.
- Maas, A H E M, and Y E A Appelman. “Gender Differences in Coronary Heart Disease.” Netherlands Heart Journal : Monthly Journal of the Netherlands Society of Cardiology and the Netherlands Heart Foundation, Bohn Stafleu Van Loghum, Dec. 2010, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3018605/.
- Chaddha, Ashish, et al. “Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Heart Health.” Circulation, 1 Dec. 2015, https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/circulationaha.114.015176.
- Smoking and Cardiovascular Disease – Centers for Disease Control and … https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/sgr/50th-anniversary/pdfs/fs_smoking_CVD_508.pdf.