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Coronary artery disease (CAD), also called heart disease, refers to the narrowing of heart arteries due to atherosclerosis (see below). The heart muscle does not get enough oxygen when heart arteries are narrowed. If the heart is starved of oxygen, chest pain (angina) occurs. If an artery is completely blocked, a heart attack results. A heart attack is medically referred to as a myocardial infarction (MI). CAD is the most common form of heart disease and heart attack is a leading killer of both men and women.
Many of these deaths can be prevented because some risk factors for CAD are controllable. Some of these controllable risk factors include high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, and diabetes. There are other controllable risk factors related to lifestyle, such as not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, reducing alcohol consumption, and getting physically active.
Although medical treatments for heart disease have come a long way, controlling risk factors remains the key to preventing illness and death from CAD.
A low supply of oxygen in the heart is most often caused by atherosclerosis, also called "hardening of the arteries." In this condition, fatty deposits called plaques form in the linings of the blood vessels. The plaques make the arteries narrower as they build up, and less blood is able to get through to the heart, depriving it of oxygen.
Atherosclerosis is often the result of too much "bad" cholesterol (low density lipoprotein, or LDL) and triglycerides circulating in the bloodstream.
You are at risk for developing atherosclerosis and CAD if you:
Occasionally, a genetic condition can cause atherosclerosis, leading to heart disease.
Men run a higher risk of developing the disease than premenopausal women. After menopause, the incidence of CAD in women increases, and can be equal to men.
Some people with CAD might have no symptoms until the disease is severe enough to cause chest pains, or angina pectoris (angina comes from the Greek word for "strangling").
Stable angina is often the first sign that a person has CAD. Chest pain or discomfort occurs with activity and is relieved by rest. With unstable angina, symptoms become less predictable and can occur when you are at rest. This indicates rapid progression of CAD and higher risk of a heart attack and requires that you see a doctor immediately.
Some symptoms of angina include:
If a plaque lining a blood vessel ruptures, it may completely block an area of the heart from receiving the oxygen-rich blood supply it needs. The starved cells in that area will then die, resulting in a heart attack (or myocardial infarction, MI).
The symptoms of a heart attack are similar to those of angina, but much stronger.
Men will often feel:
In women, the main symptoms can be similar to men but may also include:
It's very important to get medical help as quickly as possible if you feel you have the symptoms of a heart attack.