The heart is a muscle that pumps blood throughout the body. To function properly, the heart must receive oxygen. Oxygen is supplied to the heart by coronary arteries that wrap around the surface of the heart. Coronary Artery Disease is generally due to the buildup of plaque or lesions in the coronary arterial walls (a process known as atherosclerosis). Plaque is composed of cholesterol-rich fatty deposits, collagen, other proteins and excess smooth muscle cells.
Atherosclerosis, which usually progresses very gradually over a lifetime, thickens and narrows the arterial walls, impeding the flow of blood. The resulting condition of inadequate blood supply is called ischemia. When the heart muscle becomes ischemic, a person may experience angina pectoris (pain in chest), heart attack (sudden death of part of the heart muscle) or death.
Symptoms of heart attack
Heart attack symptoms in men and women often differ. Men often have the typical type of chest pain that feels like squeezing or pressure. But the pain is more severe than usual and does not go away with rest. Women, older adults, and people with diabetes may have symptoms different from chest pain. These groups of people may have symptoms like breathlessness, heartburn, nausea, fatigue, jaw pain, or back pain.
In one study, many women reported having warning symptoms 1 month before they had a heart attack. These symptoms included unusual fatigue, trouble sleeping, and shortness of breath. Only 30 out of 100 women reported chest pain, which the majority of men report.2 For more information about the differences between coronary artery disease in women and men, see women and coronary artery disease.
Unfortunately, sometimes a heart attack is the first sign of coronary artery disease. According to the large, 50-year Framingham Heart Study, more than 50 out of 100 men and 63 out of 100 women who died suddenly of coronary artery disease (mostly from heart attack) had no previous symptoms of this disease.3
Some people who have coronary artery disease and insufficient blood flow to the heart muscle (ischemia) do not have any symptoms. This is called “silent ischemia.” In rare instances, you can even have a “silent heart attack,” a heart attack without symptoms.
Treatment for Coronary Artery Diseases
Lifestyle changes are the first step for anyone with coronary artery disease. But sometimes lifestyle changes are not enough. You may also need medicines. If you take medicines, take them on a schedule and take the correct dose. Taking medicines properly can help you prevent a heart attack or stroke.
When you’re first diagnosed with heart disease, your doctor will strongly advise you to make lifestyle changes. These include quitting smoking, eating a heart-healthy diet, and getting regular exercise. These healthy habits can slow or even stop the disease and improve the quality and length of your life.
Quit smoking. It’s the best thing you can do to reduce your risk of future problems. And avoid secondhand smoke. People with heart disease who keep smoking have a 43% greater chance of dying from a heart attack than those who quit.6
Your doctor may prescribe medicine and counseling to help you quit. Nicotine replacement therapy, the medicines bupropion (Zyban or Wellbutrin) and varenicline (Chantix), and counseling can help you quit for good.7 For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
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Eat a heart-healthy diet. This can help you keep your disease from getting worse. A chart that compares heart-healthy diets(What is a PDF document?) can help you see what foods are suggested in each plan. A heart-healthy diet means:
* Eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other high-fiber foods.
* Choose foods that are low in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol.
* Limit salt.
* Stay at a healthy weight by balancing the calories you eat with how much physical activity you get.
* Eat more foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish.