Posted by Heart Hugger on Jun 20, 2019 7:13:12 AM
If you recently discovered that you or a loved one is at risk of having or has coronary artery disease, you likely walked out of the doctor’s office with a lot of mixed feelings and confusion. What is coronary artery disease? How could it affect you or your loved one going forward? What needs to change in your life or the life of your loved one to minimize the risks?
What is Coronary Artery Disease?
There are major blood vessels (coronary arteries) that supply your heart with the blood, oxygen, and nutrients it needs. When these blood vessels become damaged or diseased, that is known as coronary artery disease. Usually, plaque and inflammation are to blame for this disease.
Plaque can build up in your artery, narrowing the space for blood to flow and consequently decreasing blood flow to your heart. This can lead to minor symptoms such as shortness of breath, or even to something as serious as a complete blockage that can cause a heart attack. It’s not something to take lightly, but there is hope. Coronary artery disease can be prevented and treated, with the most significant impact coming from a healthy lifestyle change.
Symptoms of Coronary Artery Disease
Because coronary artery disease can develop over decades, it can sometimes be hard to spot unless a doctor has run tests on your heart, or you have a significant blockage that is causing severe symptoms. Many sufferers notice most symptoms during exercise, as the arteries struggle to supply enough oxygen-rich blood to your heart as it beats harder than its resting rate.
The most obvious symptoms include:
Shortness of Breath: Most noticeable with exertion, you’ll likely feel short of breath and extreme fatigue because your body isn’t able to pump enough blood to meet your needs. Obviously, shortness of breath is also a symptom of a heart that is simply out of shape, but if this symptom is combined with any risk factors (listed below), then you should check with a doctor immediately.
Chest Pain (Angina): A painful pressure or tightness in your chest is known as angina and usually occurs in the middle or on the left side of your chest. Some sufferers, particularly women, tend to describe the pain as fleeting and sharp, felt in the neck, arm, or back. It may go away within minutes of physical or emotional stress stopping, so the alleviation of it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re fine.
Heart Attack: Obviously, this is the most extreme symptom, and it is caused when a coronary artery is completely blocked. Sometimes a heart attack can happen with no apparent signs or symptoms, but typically they are accompanied by a crushing pressure in the chest, pain in the shoulder or arm, or (mainly for women) neck/jaw pain.
If you recently went to the doctor for these symptoms and/or found out that you are at risk of coronary artery disease, you’re likely wondering what would have caused it.
Causes of Coronary Artery Disease
Coronary artery disease can develop as early as childhood, but various factors that can contribute are:
- Smoking/secondhand smoke
- High cholesterol
- A sedentary lifestyle
- High blood pressure
- Insulin resistance
At the site of artery injury or damage, plaque (fatty deposits) made of cholesterol and other cellular waste products like to accumulate, causing a process called atherosclerosis. If plaque breaks or ruptures, platelets rush to the site and clump in an effort to repair the artery. This can block the artery, therefore leading to a heart attack.
Risk Factors that Contribute
Unfortunately, several risk factors can contribute to coronary artery disease, including:
Age: As bodies age, there is an increased risk of having damaged or narrow arteries, which is why an annual exam is especially important as you get older.
Gender: Coronary artery disease is generally a higher risk for men, but the odds of a woman getting it increases after menopause.
Family Health History: Unfortunately, if a family member has had heart disease, you have a higher risk of it as well. Especially if a close relative developed it at an early age, it’s been identified that your risk of heart disease is highest if your brother or father was diagnosed before the age of 55, or if your sister or mother developed it before age 65.
Being Overweight or Obese: Excess body fat is a contributor to excess in fatty deposits (plaque) in blood vessels. However, even individuals in a healthy weight range have been known to suffer from coronary artery disease.
Lack of Physical Activity: Lack of exercise means a lack of blood pumping through your heart. The more exercise you can get, the stronger your heart is likely to become, and the less you risk suffering from coronary artery disease.
High-Stress Lifestyle or Environments: If you live or work in a stressful environment, or other factors are causing stress, it’s time to find ways to de-stress. Unrelieved stress can cause damage to your arteries and increase other risk factors.
Unhealthy Eating Habits: You can be as skinny as a rail, but if you aren’t eating healthy you are increasing your risk for coronary artery disease. Avoid high amounts of saturated fat, trans fat, salt, and sugar, as these all can increase your risk for disease.
All of these risk factors and causes tend to build on each other, putting you at a higher risk for coronary artery disease.
Preventing Coronary Artery Disease
As with any life change to improve health, it’s recommended to try making changes one step at a time. Otherwise, you may give up entirely because too much change at once can be overwhelming and seemingly impossible to sustain. To improve your overall heart health, we recommend the following:
- Stay active: Progress is better than nothing
- Reduce stress and incorporate activities that help you de-stress
- Change your diet to include more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- Maintain a healthy weight (keep in mind this looks different for everyone!) and meet with a dietician to establish what that means for you specifically
- Control any pre-existing conditions you may have, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes
You do not have to be at the mercy of health issues. There are easy changes you can make, starting today!
If you or a loved one are anticipating an upcoming heart surgery, we recommend talking to your doctor about HeartHugger as a recovery tool following surgery.