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Learning About Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)

Coronary arteries and plaque in an artery

What is coronary artery disease?

Coronary artery disease (CAD) occurs when the arteries that bring oxygen-rich blood to your heart become narrow or blocked. This usually happens when plaque builds up in them. Plaque is a fatty substance made of cholesterol, calcium, and other substances in the blood.

What happens when you have coronary artery disease?

  • Narrowed arteries cause poor blood flow. This can lead to angina symptoms such as chest pain or discomfort. If blood flow is completely blocked, you could have a heart attack.
  • You can slow CAD and reduce the risk of future problems by making changes in your lifestyle. These include quitting smoking and eating heart-healthy foods.
  • Treatments for CAD, along with changes in your lifestyle, can help you live a longer and healthier life.

How can you prevent coronary artery disease?

  • Do not smoke. It may be the best thing you can do to prevent heart disease. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Be active. Get at least 2½ hours of exercise a week. Walking is a good choice. You also may want to do other activities, such as running, swimming, cycling, or playing tennis or team sports.
  • Eat heart-healthy foods. Eat more fruits and vegetables and less foods that contain saturated and trans fats. Limit alcohol, sodium, and sweets.
  • Stay at a healthy weight. Lose weight if you need to.
  • Manage other health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

How is coronary artery disease treated?

  • Your doctor will suggest that you make lifestyle changes. For example, your doctor may ask you to eat healthy foods, quit smoking, lose extra weight, and be more active.
  • You will have to take medicines.
  • Your doctor may suggest a procedure to open blocked arteries. This is called angioplasty. Or your doctor may suggest using healthy blood vessels to create detours around narrowed or blocked arteries (bypass surgery).

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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