Coronary Artery Disease, Explained
Your heart is at work every minute of the day, pumping blood to deliver oxygen to vital organs. Each part of the heart plays a role in this important task, along with the rest of your cardiovascular system, including your arteries and blood vessels.
Overall heart health involves all the components of this complex network. Coronary artery disease — the most common type of heart disease — affects your blood vessels and the flow of blood to your heart. It typically develops over the course of many years, and many of the key risk factors can be managed. Here’s what to know about preventing and treating this type of heart disease.
What is coronary artery disease?
Like any organ in your body, your heart needs oxygen to function. Coronary arteries are the blood vessels that supply your heart with oxygen-rich blood. Coronary artery disease occurs when these blood vessels are hardened or blocked, affecting the flow of blood to the heart itself.
This condition is often caused by atherosclerosis — the accumulation of substances like cholesterol and blood-clotting material in your arteries. (These substances are collectively referred to as plaque). A variety of factors can increase your risk for atherosclerosis — and therefore your risk for heart disease — including high LDL cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, physical inactivity, and smoking. Additional key risk factors for heart disease include age and family history.
There are several known symptoms of coronary artery disease, including chest pain or tightness (also called angina) and shortness of breath. Depending on where your blood vessels have narrowed, you may also experience pain, numbness, or weakness in your arms or legs. Women are more likely than men to experience additional symptoms such as nausea, back and jaw pain, and shortness of breath without accompanying chest pain.
Symptoms of coronary artery disease present differently from one person to another. It is best to discuss your risk of heart disease with your doctor if you have concerns rather than waiting for symptoms to appear. It’s especially important to be proactive if you have a family history of heart disease.
The importance of prevention
In the long term, coronary artery disease can increase your risk for other heart health issues, including heart attack and heart failure, which occurs when your heart cannot pump all of the blood that your body needs. These serious health risks are preventable — by identifying coronary artery disease at an early stage and following the treatment plan your doctor recommends, you can manage the condition and lower your risk for related complications.
Too often, people learn that they have coronary artery disease only after experiencing a more serious complication like a heart attack, stroke, or heart failure. Consulting with your doctor about your risk for heart disease and staying up to date with blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose screenings is key to detecting heart health problems early on. Here are some of the numbers your doctor will track to identify your risk for heart disease, along with your individual and family health history.
The National Institutes of Health defines normal blood pressure for most adults as below 120 mm Hg systolic and 80 mm Hg diastolic. (Systolic pressure, the first number in your blood pressure reading, is typically the reading that’s most important when monitoring blood pressure.) If your blood pressure falls in this range, typical screening frequency is at least once per year. If your blood pressure is in a higher range, ask your doctor about recommended screening frequency.
Your cholesterol levels can also help your healthcare provider identify your risk for heart health issues. If your total cholesterol is under 200 mg/dL, you can have your cholesterol checked every 4-6 years. If you are at higher risk for heart disease and stroke, consult your doctor about recommended screening frequency.
In the long term, high blood sugar can damage your blood vessels, and diabetes is a risk factor for coronary artery disease. It’s important to monitor your blood glucose levels as part of your broader heart disease prevention efforts, especially once you enter your 50s and 60s. Your doctor can advise you on recommended screening frequency.
Remember that it’s never too early or too late to prioritize heart-healthy living. Read our previous blog, ‘How to Prevent Heart Disease at Any Age’ to learn about important heart disease prevention actions for your age group.
Treating coronary artery disease
If you have coronary artery disease, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes and/or medications to manage your heart disease risk factors. Quitting smoking, planning a heart-healthy diet, and exercising more frequently are often a first step in managing coronary artery disease.
The specific medications used to treat coronary artery disease vary by individual. Your doctor may prescribe one or more of the following types of medications depending on your health history:
- Cholesterol-lowering medications like statins, fibrates, and niacin
- Blood pressure medications like beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, and ACE inhibitors
- Anticoagulants and antiplatelets to reduce your risk of blood clots
Take charge of your heart health
Heart-healthy living is a lifelong practice, and heart disease prevention or treatment is an ongoing commitment to your health. At Alto, we make it as simple as possible to manage your risk for heart health issues like coronary artery disease and stay on top of cholesterol-lowering or blood pressure management medications.
We will work with your doctor, your insurance (if applicable), and any third party savings programs that you may qualify for to ensure your medications are as affordable as possible. And our team of pharmacists is available to chat whenever questions come up about side effects or how to take your medication properly.
Reach out any time through in-app secure messaging or by phone at 1-800-874-5881.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.