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Coronary Artery Disease: An Overview

The heart is the hardest working muscle in the human body. It beats 100,000 times a day. It is responsible for supplying the entire body with oxygenated, nutrient rich blood so that organs can stay healthy and function properly. The heart is the hub of the circulatory system which consists of arteries, capillaries, and veins. The heart not only acts as a pump to move blood through the circulatory system to the other organs in the body, but it also supplies itself through the coronary arteries.

Arteries are the main routes in which the heart distributes oxygenated blood to surrounding tissues. They are much like rubber tubes. When healthy, they are soft and flexible and blood can freely flow without restriction. However, certain risk factors such as age, gender, family history, smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, obesity, lack of exercise, and stress can compromise arterial health and contribute to heart disease.

One sign of poor arterial health is a condition called atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a chronic disease where the arterial wall thickens due to plaque deposits. Fatty materials such as cholesterol and calcium in your blood stream can stick to the lining in the arteries creating a buildup that ultimately narrows the passageway and reduces the flow of blood. Atherosclerosis can affect any artery in the body. When it affects the arteries supplying the heart it is called Coronary Artery Disease (CAD).

Symptoms of Coronary Artery Disease usually don't present until after the age of 50. While men typically show signs 10 years earlier than women, by the age of 60 it is the leading cause of death in both men and women. Symptoms usually occur during times of physical activity when the heart is working harder than at rest. These symptoms include angina, otherwise known as chest pain, shortness of breath, and heart attack. Less commonly reported symptoms include rapid heart beat, sweating, and feeling sick to your stomach. Sometimes there are no symptoms at all.

A doctor can diagnose CAD by starting with a general physical. From there, other diagnostics such as EKGs, chest X-rays, blood work, and stress tests can be performed to further diagnose Coronary Artery Disease.

CAD is treatable through medication and surgical procedures. Some medications can are used to help lower cholesterol or blood pressure, while others assist in thinning the blood and reducing the chance of blood clots. Surgical procedures include angioplasty, use of a stent, or bypass surgery. An angioplasty is a procedure involving a long skinny balloon that is inserted into the blocked artery where it is then inflated to compress the plaque buildup. This opens up the artery and allows increased blood flow. In some cases a thin wire mesh tube is placed in the artery to ensure it stays open. Another solution to a blocked artery is to perform a bypass surgery. This is where a healthy portion of artery is grafted from the leg or chest and is strategically placed to reroute the blood around the blockage.

While some risk factors such as age, gender, and family history are beyond our control, lifestyle changes such as avoiding cigarettes and second hand smoke, eating a healthy diet, and regular exercise can reduce or even eliminate many of the risks associated with CAD. Making changes to adopt a healthy lifestyle will not only increase your quality of life but improve your overall health and reduce the risk of CAD.

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By Katie Shepard

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