Coronary artery disease — also called coronary vascular, arteriosclerotic and ischemic heart disease — remains the leading cause of death in the United States. The disease is caused by arteriosclerosis or "hardening of the arteries," which interferes with the normal flow of blood to the heart. It affects the arteries that surround and supply blood to the heart, causing more than a half million deaths a year. When the heart doesn't receive enough blood, symptoms may include pain or pressure in the chest, arm or jaw. This is a warning sign that your heart is having difficulty. If left untreated, it can result in a heart attack.
The most common disease of the coronary arteries is arteriosclerosis, commonly called "hardening of the arteries." Plaque — a combination of cholesterol and other fats, calcium and other elements carried in the blood — builds up in the small blood vessels that feed the heart. When this condition exists in other parts of the body, it is called atherosclerosis.
This plaque buildup can, in time, narrow the arteries so severely that blood flow to the heart is inadequate and symptoms of insufficient blood flow — called angina — develop. Angina is a term meaning strangling or oppressive heaviness and pain, but it has become synonymous with angina pectoris or chest pain caused by lack of oxygen to the heart due to poor blood supply.
Doctors know that some people are at high risk of this kind of heart disease because of certain physical and behavioral characteristics. For example, men generally are at greater risk for heart disease but the risk increases for women after menopause. Other characteristics for arteriosclerosis include:
Medications and sometimes lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking or losing weight, can help improve heart efficiency to reduce angina but can't eliminate the plaque blockages. Medications may include cholesterol-lowering drugs, Beta-blockers, nitroglycerin, calcium channel blockers, angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors and others.
Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.
Cardiovascular Care and Prevention Center at Mission Bay
535 Mission Bay Blvd. South
San Francisco, CA 94158
Phone: (415) 353-2873
Fax: (415) 353-2528