Coronary artery disease, or CAD, is the most common type of heart disease and represents leading cause of death in the United States.  The disease begins when the arteries responsible for supplying blood to the heart become hardened and narrowed due to a buildup of cholesterol and plaque (known as atherosclerosis) on the inner arterial walls. As the buildup grows, the blood flow through the arteries becomes limited and the heart struggles to get the blood and oxygen it needs. Blockage can cause chest pain (angina) or even heart attack. Most heart attacks are a result of a blood clot suddenly cutting off the heart’s’ blood supply, permanently damaging the heart.


Risk Factors and Causes

Generally speaking, heart disease is caused by plaque buildup that narrows the blood vessels and arteries, limiting the amount of blood and oxygen available to the heart. There are a number of known risks and causative factors, including:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Family history
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Lack of activity
  • High stress


While getting older increases your risk for narrowed arteries, males are generally at higher risk though women’s risk increases after menopause. If someone in your family has heart disease, you are at a higher risk for heart problems. Smoking is also a significant risk factor because nicotine causes you blood to thicken while constricting your blood vessels and damaging cell linings with carbon monoxide. Women who smoke at least a pack a day are six times more likely to have heart disease, and men who smoke are three times more likely.

Uncontrolled blood pressure can also result in hardening of the arteries while high cholesterol can contribute to plaque buildup. Diabetes increases your risk and the two diseases share a number of risk factors: obesity and lack of exercise. Being obese causes your heart to work harder; lack of exercise and high stress both contribute to overall poor health.



The most commonly reported symptom of C.A.D. is chest pain or angina. This is often described as heaviness, pressure, aching, or burning in the chest but may also be described as numbness, fullness, or a squeezing feeling. Though this pain is sometimes confused with heartburn or indigestion, angina is commonly felt in the chest but may also be felt in the jaw, neck, arms, shoulders, or back. Other symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Palpitations (skipped beats, or irregular heartbeat)
  • Nausea
  • Weakness or dizziness
  • Sweating



In addition to a thorough medical exam and patient history, a doctor may order one or more tests to deliver the official diagnosis: an electrocardiogram (ECG), echocardiogram, or a stress test. An electrocardiogram records electrical signals as they travel through your heart, to reveal evidence of a previous attack, or even show one in progress. An echocardiogram uses sound to display an image of your heart, which allows your doctor to determine which parts are functioning correctly, and which are not. This allows him or her to rule out CAD, as well. If signs and symptoms come up mostly when you exercise, you may be asked to do a stress test, where you walk on a treadmill or ride a bike during one of the other two tests. Other tests may also be ordered.



Your doctor may recommend certain medications or medical procedures to help address the condition. Most people can live a number of years with heart disease, and even survive a heart attack, depending on the damage done to the heart. Medications may address cholesterol levels, thin your blood, lower your blood pressure and demand for oxygen, etc. A healthy weight maintained by diet and exercise is almost always recommended.


Improving Prognosis

There are a number of lifestyle changes you can make to improve your prognosis. Actively work to reduce the stress in your life and learn a variety of relaxation techniques to handle the stress when it hits. Quit smoking as soon as possible. If you need help with quitting, your doctor can explore several cessation options, including: medication, nicotine replacement therapy, peer support groups, and smoking cessation classes.

Make dietary changes to promote weight loss, and even if you are a healthy weight, make sure you’re eating a healthy diet with daily servings of fruit and vegetables. Replace empty carbohydrates with whole grains. Exercise to help keep your heart working efficiently, as directed by your doctor. If you’re prescribed medication, take as directed and report any side effects to your doctor.


The information provided on this site is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material found on this website is intended to promote and encourage consumer understanding and should not be considered alternative or supplementary medical advice. If you have any concerns regarding your health or physical condition, seek the advice of a licensed qualified healthcare provider. Be sure to discuss any changes or concerns with your doctor before beginning a new healthcare regimen, undergoing any procedures, or changing current healthcare plans. Seniors and Health does not claim medical representation and assumes no responsibility in the accuracy of the information available on this website.

To learn about other common health concerns among senior, check out our Health and Conditions page; we also provide information on senior care options on our Assisted Living page.

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