Coronary Artery Disease
Coronary artery disease is a narrowing or blockage of the arteries and vessels that provide oxygen and nutrients to the heart. It is caused by atherosclerosis
, an accumulation of fatty materials on the inner linings of arteries. The resulting blockage restricts blood flow to the heart. When the blood flow is completely cut off, the result is a heart attack
Coronary artery disease, also called coronary heart disease or heart disease, is the leading cause of death
for both men and women in the United States. According to the American Heart Association, deaths from coronary artery disease have declined some since about 1990, but more than 40,000 people still died from the disease in 2000. About 13 million Americans have active symptoms of coronary artery disease.
Coronary artery disease occurs when the coronary arteries become partially blocked or clogged. This blockage limits the flow of blood from the coronary arteries, which are the major arteries supplying oxygen-rich blood to the heart. The coronary arteries expand when the heart is working harder and needs more oxygen. Arteries expand, for example, when a person is climbing stairs, exercising, or having sex. If the arteries are unable to expand, the heart is deprived of oxygen (myocardial ischemia
). When the blockage is limited, chest pain
or pressure, called angina
, may occur. When the blockage cuts off the flow of blood, the result is heart attack (myocardial infarction or heart muscle death).
Healthy coronary arteries are clean, smooth, and slick. The artery walls are flexible and can expand to let more blood through when the heart needs to work harder. The disease process in arteries is thought to begin with an injury to the linings and walls of the arteries. This injury makes them susceptible to atherosclerosis and blood clots
Causes and symptoms
Coronary artery disease is usually caused by atherosclerosis. Cholesterol and other fatty substances accumulate on the inner wall of the arteries. They attract fibrous tissue, blood components, and calcium, and harden into artery-clogging plaques. Atherosclerotic plaques often form blood clots that also can block the coronary arteries (coronary thrombosis). Congenital defects and muscle spasms can also block blood flow. Recent research indicates that infection from organisms such as chlamydia bacteria may be responsible for some cases of coronary artery disease.
A number of major contributing factors increase the risk of developing coronary artery disease. Some of these can be changed and some cannot. People with more risk factors are more likely to develop coronary artery disease.
Major risk factors
Major risk factors significantly increase the chance of developing coronary artery disease. Those that cannot be changed are:
- Heredity—People whose parents have coronary artery disease are more likely to develop it. African Americans also are at increased risk because they experience a higher rate of severe hypertension than whites.
- Sex—Men are more likely to have heart attacks than women and to have them at a younger age. Over age 60, however, women have coronary artery disease at a rate equal to that of men.
- Age—Men who are 45 years of age and older and women who are 55 years of age and older are more likely to have coronary artery disease. Occasionally, coronary disease may strike a person in the 30s. Older people (those over 65) are more likely to die of a heart attack. Older women are twice as likely as older men to die within a few weeks of a heart attack.
Major risk factors that can be changed are:
- Smoking—Smoking increases both the chance of developing coronary artery disease and the chance of dying from it. Smokers are two to four times more likely than are non-smokers to die of sudden heart attack. They are more than twice as likely as non-smokers to have a heart attack. They also are more likely to die within an hour of a heart attack. Second hand smoke also may increase risk.
- High cholesterol—Dietary sources of cholesterol are meat, eggs, and other animal products. The body also produces it. Age, sex, heredity, and diet affect one's blood cholesterol. Total blood cholesterol is considered high at levels above 240 mg/dL and borderline at 200-239 mg/dL. High-risk levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL cholesterol) begin at 130-159 mg/dL, depending on other risk factors. Risk of developing coronary artery disease increases steadily as blood cholesterol levels increase above 160 mg/dL. When a person has other risk factors, the risk multiplies.
- High blood pressure—High blood pressure makes the heart work harder and weakens it over time. It increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, and congestive heart failure. A blood pressure of 140 over 90 or above is considered high. As the numbers rise, high blood pressure goes from Stage 1 (mild) to Stage 4 (very severe). In combination with obesity, smoking, high cholesterol, or diabetes, high blood pressure raises the risk of heart attack or stroke several times.
- Lack of physical activity—Lack of exercise increases the risk of coronary artery disease. Even modest physical activity, like walking, is beneficial if done regularly.
- Diabetes mellitus—The risk of developing coronary artery disease is seriously increased for diabetics. More than 80% of diabetics die of some type of heart or blood vessel disease.
Contributing risk factors
Contributing risk factors have been linked to coronary artery disease, but the degree of their significance is not known yet. Contributing risk factors are:
- Hormone replacement therapy—Evidence from a large trial called the Women's Health Initiative released in 2002 and 2003 found that hormone replacement therapy is a risk factor for coronary artery disease in postmenopausal women. The therapy was once thought to help protect women against heart disease, but in the trial, it was discovered that it was harmful to women with existing coronary artery disease.
- Obesity—Excess weight increases the strain on the heart and increases the risk of developing coronary artery disease even if no other risk factors are present. Obesity increases blood pressure and blood cholesterol and can lead to diabetes.
- Stress and anger—Some scientists believe that stress and anger can contribute to the development of coronary artery disease and increase the blood's tendency to form clots (thrombosis). Stress, the mental and physical reaction to life's irritations and challenges, increases the heart rate and blood pressure and can injure the lining of the arteries. Evidence shows that anger increases the risk of dying from heart disease. The risk of heart attack is more than double after an episode of anger.
Chest pain (angina) is the main symptom of coronary heart disease but it is not always present. Other symptoms include shortness of breath
, and chest heaviness, tightness, pain, a burning sensation, squeezing, or pressure either behind the breastbone or in the arms, neck, or jaws. Many people have no symptoms of coronary artery disease before having a heart attack; 63% of women and 48% of men who died suddenly of coronary artery disease had no previous symptoms of the disease, according to the American Heart Association.
Diagnosis begins with a visit to the physician, who will take a medical history, discuss symptoms, listen to the heart, and perform basic screening tests. These tests will measure weight, blood pressure, blood lipid levels, and fasting
blood glucose levels. Other diagnostic tests include resting and exercise electrocardiogram, echocardiography
, radionuclide scans, and coronary angiography
. The treadmill exercise (stress) test is an appropriate screening test for those with high risk factors even when they feel well.
An electrocardiogram (ECG) shows the heart's activity and may reveal a lack of oxygen (ischemia). Electrodes covered with conducting jelly are placed on the patient's chest, arms, and legs. They send impulses of the heart's activity through an oscilloscope (a monitor) to a recorder that traces them on paper. The test takes about 10 minutes and is performed in a physician's office. A definite diagnosis cannot be made from electrocardiography. About 50% of patients with significant coronary artery disease have normal resting electrocardiograms. Another type of electrocardiogram, known as the exercise stress test
, measures how the heart and blood vessels respond to exertion when the patient is exercising on a treadmill or a stationary bike. This test is performed in a physician's office or an exercise laboratory. It takes 15-30 minutes. It is not perfectly accurate. It sometimes gives a normal reading when the patient has a heart problem or an abnormal reading when the patient does not.
If the electrocardiogram reveals a problem or is inconclusive, the next step is exercise echocardiography or nuclear scanning (angiography). Echocardiography, cardiac ultrasound, uses sound waves to create an image of the heart's chambers and valves. A technologist applies gel to a hand-held transducer, then presses it against the patient's chest. The heart's sound waves are converted into an image that can be displayed on a monitor. It does not reveal the coronary arteries themselves, but can detect abnormalities in heart wall motion caused by coronary disease. Performed in a cardiology outpatient diagnostic laboratory, the test takes 30-60 minutes.
Radionuclide angiography enables physicians to see the blood flow of the coronary arteries. Nuclear scans are performed by injecting a small amount of radiopharmaceutical such as thallium into the bloodstream. A device that uses gamma rays to produce an image of the radioactive material (gamma camera) records pictures of the heart. Radionuclide scans are not dangerous. The radiation exposure is about the same as that in a chest x ray. The tiny amount of radioactive material used disappears from the body in a few days. Radionuclide scans cost about four times as much as exercise stress tests but provide more information.
In radionuclide angiography, a scanning camera passes back and forth over the patient who lies on a table. Radionuclide angiography is usually performed in a hospital's nuclear medicine department and takes 30-60 minutes. Thallium scanning usually is done in conjunction with an exercise stress test. When the stress test is finished, thallium or sestamibi is injected. The patient resumes exercise for one minute to absorb the thallium. For patients who cannot exercise, cardiac blood flow and heart rate may be increased by intravenous dipyridamole (Persantine) or adenosine. Thallium scanning is done twice, immediately after injecting the radiopharmaceutical and again four hours (and maybe 24 hours) later. It is usually performed in a hospital's nuclear medicine department. Each scan takes 30-60 minutes.
Coronary angiography is the most accurate method for making a diagnosis of coronary artery disease, but it also is the most invasive. It is a form of cardiac catheterization that shows the heart's chambers, great vessels, and coronary arteries using x-ray technology. During coronary angiography the patient is awake but sedated. ECG electrodes are placed on the patient's chest and an intravenous line is inserted. A local anesthetic is injected into the site where the catheter will be inserted. The cardiologist inserts a catheter into a blood vessel and guides it into the heart. A contrast dye is injected to make the heart visible on x-ray cinematography. Coronary angiography is performed in a cardiac catheterization
laboratory either in an outpatient or inpatient surgery unit. It takes from 30 minutes to two hours.
Coronary artery disease can be treated many ways. The choice of treatment depends on the severity of the disease. Treatments include lifestyle changes and drug therapy, percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty
, and coronary artery bypass surgery. Coronary artery disease is a chronic disease requiring lifelong care. Angioplasty or bypass surgery is not a cure.
People with less severe coronary artery disease may gain adequate control through lifestyle changes and drug therapy. Many of the lifestyle changes that prevent disease progression—a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet, weight loss if needed, exercise, and not smoking—also help prevent the disease from developing.
Drugs such as nitrates, beta-blockers, and calcium-channel blockers relieve chest pain and complications of coronary artery disease, but they cannot clear blocked arteries. Nitrates (nitroglycerin) improve blood flow to the heart. Beta-blockers (acebutelol, propranolol) reduce the amount of oxygen required by the heart during stress. One type of calcium-channel blocker (verapamil, diltiazem hydrochloride) helps keep the arteries open and reduces blood pressure. Aspirin helps prevent blood clots from forming on plaques, reducing the likelihood of a heart attack. Cholesterol-lowering medications are also indicated in most cases.
Percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty and bypass surgery are procedures that enter the body (invasive procedures) to improve blood flow in the coronary arteries. Percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty, usually called coronary angioplasty, is a non-surgical procedure. A catheter tipped with a balloon is threaded from a blood vessel in the thigh into the blocked artery. The balloon is inflated, compressing the plaque to enlarge the blood vessel and open the blocked artery. The balloon is deflated, and the catheter is removed. Coronary angioplasty is performed in a hospital and generally requires a stay of one or two days. Coronary angioplasty is successful about 90% of the time, but for one-third of patients, the artery narrows again within six months. The procedure can be repeated. It is less invasive and less expensive than coronary artery bypass surgery.
In coronary artery bypass surgery, a healthy artery or vein from an arm, leg, or chest wall is used to build a detour around the coronary artery blockage. The healthy vessel then supplies oxygen-rich blood to the heart. Bypass surgery is major surgery. It is appropriate for those patients with blockages in two or three major coronary arteries, those with severely narrowed left main coronary arteries, and those who have not responded to other treatments. It is performed in a hospital under general anesthesia. A heart-lung machine is used to support the patient while the healthy vein or artery is attached past the blockage to the coronary artery. About 70% of patients who have bypass surgery experience full relief from angina; about 20% experience partial relief. Only about 3-4% of patients per year experience a return of symptoms. Survival rates after bypass surgery decrease over time. At five years after surgery, survival expectancy is 90%; at 10 years about 80%, at 15 years about 55%, and at 20 years about 40%.
Various semi-experimental surgical procedures for unblocking coronary arteries are currently being studied. Atherectomy
is a procedure in which the surgeon shaves off and removes strips of plaque from the blocked artery. In laser angioplasty, a catheter with a laser tip is inserted into the affected artery to burn or break down the plaque. A metal coil called a stent can be implanted permanently to keep a blocked artery open. Stenting is becoming more common.
Natural therapies may reduce the risk of certain types of heart disease, but once symptoms appear, conventional medical attention is necessary. A healthy diet (including cold-water fish as a source of essential fatty acids) and exercise, important components of conventional prevention and treatment strategies, also are emphasized in alternative approaches to coronary artery disease. Herbal medicine offers a variety of remedies that may have a beneficial effect on coronary artery disease. For example, ginger (Zingiber officinale
) may help reduce cholesterol. Garlic (Allium sativum
), ginger, and hot red or chili peppers all are circulatory enhancers that can help prevent blood clots. Yoga
and other bodywork, massage, relaxation therapies, and talking therapies also may help prevent coronary artery disease and stop, or even reverse, the progression of atherosclerosis. Vitamin and mineral therapy to reduce, reverse, or protect against coronary artery disease include chromium; calcium and magnesium; B-complex vitamins
; the antioxidant vitamins C and E; selenium; and zinc. Traditional Chinese medicine
may recommend herbal remedies, massage, acupuncture, and dietary modification. However, studies released in 2003 showed that vitamins C and E fell short of claims that they helped narrow blockage caused by coronary artery disease. In fact, high doses of the vitamins should be avoided.
In many cases, coronary artery disease can be successfully treated. Advances in medicine and healthier lifestyles have caused a substantial decline in death rates from coronary artery disease since the mid-1980s. New diagnostic techniques enable doctors to identify and treat coronary artery disease in its earliest stages. New technologies and surgical procedures have extended the lives of many patients who would otherwise have died. Research on coronary artery disease continues.
A healthy lifestyle can help prevent coronary artery disease and help keep it from progressing. A heart-healthy lifestyle includes eating right, regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, no smoking, moderate drinking, no recreational drugs, controlling hypertension
, and managing stress. Cardiac rehabilitation
programs are excellent to help prevent recurring coronary problems for people who are at risk and who have had coronary events and procedures.
A healthy diet includes a variety of foods that are low in fat, especially saturated fat, low in cholesterol, and high in fiber. It includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, nuts and whole grains, and limited sodium. Some foods are low in fat but high in cholesterol and some are low in cholesterol but high in fat. Saturated fat raises cholesterol and, in excessive amounts, increases the amount of the clot-forming proteins in blood. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are good for the heart. Fat should comprise no more than 30% of total daily calories.
Cholesterol, a waxy substance containing fats, is found in foods such as meat, eggs, and other animal products. It also is produced in the liver. Soluble fiber can help lower cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol should be limited to about 300 milligrams per day. Many popular lipid-lowering drugs can reduce LDL cholesterol by an average of 25-30% when used with a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet.
Fruits and vegetables are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals
. They are low calorie and nearly fat free. Vitamin C and beta-carotene, found in many fruits and vegetables, keep LDL cholesterol from turning into a form that damages coronary arteries.
Excess sodium can increase the risk of high blood pressure. Many processed foods contain large amounts of sodium. Daily intake should be limited to about 2,400 milligrams, about the amount in a teaspoon of salt.
The "Food Guide" Pyramid developed by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services provides easy-to-follow guidelines for daily heart-healthy eating. It recommends 6 to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta; three to five servings of vegetables; two to four servings of fruit; two to three servings of milk, yogurt, and cheese; and two to three servings of meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts. Fats, oils, and sweets should be used sparingly. Canola and olive oil are better for the heart than other cooking oils. Coronary patients should be on a strict diet. In 2003, the American Heart Association advised a diet rish in fatty fish such as salmon, herring, trout, or sardines. If people cannot eat daily servings of these fish, the association recommends three fish oil capsules per day.
Aerobic exercise can lower blood pressure, help control weight, and increase HDL ("good") cholesterol. It may keep the blood vessels more flexible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend moderate to intense aerobic exercise lasting about 30 minutes four or more times per week for maximum heart health. Three 10-minute exercise periods also are beneficial. Aerobic exercise—activities such as walking, jogging, and cycling—uses the large muscle groups and forces the body to use oxygen more efficiently. It also can include everyday activities such as active gardening, climbing stairs, or brisk housework. People with coronary artery disease or risk factors should consult a doctor before beginning an exercise program.
Maintaining a desirable body weight
About one-fourth of all Americans are overweight and nearly one-tenth are obese, according to the Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition
and Health. People who are 20% or more over their ideal body weight have an increased risk of developing coronary artery disease. Losing weight can help reduce total and LDL cholesterol, reduce triglycerides, and boost HDL cholesterol. It also may reduce blood pressure. Eating right and exercising are two key components of losing weight.
Avoiding recreational drugs
Smoking has many adverse effects on the heart. It increases the heart rate, constricts major arteries, and can create irregular heartbeats. It raises blood pressure, contributes to the development of plaque, increases the formation of blood clots, and causes blood platelets to cluster and impede blood flow. Heart damage caused by smoking can be repaired by quitting. Even heavy smokers can return to heart health. Several studies have shown that ex-smokers face the same risk of heart disease as non-smokers within five to 10 years after quitting.
Drink in moderation. Modest consumption of alcohol may actually protect against coronary artery disease because alcohol appears to raise levels of HDL cholesterol. The American Heart Association defines moderate consumption as one ounce of alcohol per day, roughly one cocktail, one 8-ounce glass of wine, or two 12-ounce glasses of beer. However, even moderate drinking can increase risk factors for heart disease for some people (by raising blood pressure, for example). Excessive drinking always is bad for the heart. It usually raises blood pressure and can poison the heart and cause abnormal heart rhythms or even heart failure.
Do not use other recreational drugs. Commonly used recreational drugs, particularly cocaine and "crack," can seriously harm the heart and should never be used.
Seeking treatment for hypertension
High blood pressure, one of the most common and serious risk factors for coronary artery disease, can be controlled completely through lifestyle changes and medication. Moderate hypertension can be controlled by reducing dietary intake of sodium and fat, exercising regularly, managing stress, abstaining from smoking, and drinking alcohol in moderation. People for whom these changes do not work or people with severe hypertension may be helped by many categories of medication.
— Chest pain that happens when diseased blood vessels restrict the flow of blood to the heart. Angina often is the first symptom of coronary artery disease.
— A process in which the walls of the coronary arteries thicken due to the accumulation of plaque in the blood vessels. Atherosclerosis is the cause of coronary artery disease.
— A drug that blocks some of the effects of fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline (epinephrine and norepinephrine), slowing the heart rate and lowering the blood pressure.
— A drug that blocks the entry of calcium into the muscle cells of small blood vessels (arterioles) and keeps them from narrowing.
— The main arteries that provide blood to the heart. The coronary arteries surround the heart like a crown, coming out of the aorta, arching down over the top of the heart, and dividing into two branches. These are the arteries in which coronary artery disease occurs.
— High-density lipoprotein cholesterol is a component of cholesterol that helps protect against heart disease. HDL is nicknamed "good" cholesterol
— Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol is the primary cholesterol molecule. High levels of LDL increase the risk of coronary heart disease. LDL is nicknamed "bad" cholesterol.
— A deposit of fatty and other substances that accumulate in the lining of the artery wall.
— A fat that comes from food or is made from other energy sources in the body. Elevated triglyceride levels contribute to the development of atherosclerosis.
Everyone experiences stress. Stress sometimes can be avoided and when it is inevitable, it can be controlled. It is particularly important for those at risk for heart disease. A 2003 report showed that middle-aged men with high anxiety
were less likely to adhere to heart healthy lifestyle practices. Techniques for controlling stress include: taking life more slowly, spending more time with family and friends, thinking positively, getting enough sleep, exercising, and practicing relaxation techniques.
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Jancin, Bruce. "High Anxiety Level Predicts Heart-unhealthy Lifestyle." Internal Medicine News March 15, 2003: 25.
"Optimal Diets for Prevention of CHD." Clinical Cardiology Alert February 2003.
Wellbery, Caroline. "No HRT or Antioxidants in Women with Coronary Disease." American Family Physician March 15, 2003: 1371.
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American Heart Association. 7320 Greenville Ave, Dallas, TX 75231. (214) 373-6300. http://www.americanheart.org.
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. P.O. Box 30105, Bethesda, MD 20824-0105. (301) 251-1222. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov.
Texas Heart Institute. Heart Information Service. P.O. Box 20345, Houston, TX 77225-0345. http://www.tmc.edu/thi.