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February is American Heart Month.

During the month of February, Golden Outlook will post weekly articles on tips for keeping your heart healthy.

Frequently Asked Questions About Coronary Artery Disease

Learn about risk factors, symptoms and treatment for this condition. 

iStock_000015318895Small.jpgHere are some answers to the top questions about coronary artery disease (CAD).

Q: What is coronary artery disease?
 Coronary artery disease occurs when blood vessels that provide blood to the heart become narrowed or blocked by fatty deposits called plaque, or atherosclerosis. The flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart may then be slowed.

Q: What are risk factors for developing CAD?
 Risk factors include smoking, unhealthy cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and high blood sugar. Some controllable lifestyle factors — such as being overweight or obese, having unhealthy eating habits or being inactive — also raise your risk. Other risk factors you cannot control include advancing age or family history of the disease. Some experts believe that sleep apnea, stress and alcohol abuse may raise your risk. Reasearch is also being studied for the effect of having high levels of certain inflammatory markers as a risk for developing CAD. The more risk factors you have, the greater your chance of developing the disease.

Q: What are the symptoms of CAD?
 Many people with CAD do not have symptoms. When symptoms occur, the most common is chest pain or chest discomfort (angina). It may feel like squeezing or pressure. The discomfort may be in your shoulders, neck, jaw, throat, arms or back. Or it may feel like indigestion. You may be short of breath.

Others may experience:

  • Irregular or quickening heartbeats
  • Light-headedness, dizziness, fatigue or extreme weakness
  • Nausea, vomiting or a cold sweat

Chest pains are still the most common symptom of CAD in women, the elderly and people with diabetes. However, women are more likely than men to have atypical symptoms including shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, unusual fatigue, and pain in the back, shoulders, throat, neck, jaw and abdomen.

Shortness of breath is also more common in the elderly and people with diabetes.

If you have chest pain or any of these symptoms, call 911 right away. This could be the sign of a heart attack. If you have a history of angina, talk with your doctor during your regular office visit to learn what actions you should take if you experience chest pain and when you should seek emergency care.

Q: How is CAD treated?
 Whether you are trying to prevent, delay, or treat coronary artery disease, you can begin with the following lifestyle changes:

  • If you smoke, quit. Ask your doctor for help.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. Low-fat, low-sodium and low-cholesterol foods may help you manage high blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol levels. Eat foods rich in fiber, like whole grains, fruits and legumes. Include fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon in your diet. Pregnant women should eat fish low in mercury.
  • Increase your level of physical activity. Always talk with your doctor before you start an exercise program.
  • Reach and maintain a healthy weight.
  • If you choose to drink, limit alcoholic beverages to no more than two drinks a day for men, one drink a day for women.
  • Look for ways to reduce or better manage stress.

In some cases, your doctor may prescribe medicine to treat coronary artery disease or manage its risk factors. If medications are recommended, be sure to take them as prescribed and keep all follow-up office visits. Depending on your diagnosis, your doctor  also might suggest a medical procedure, such as angioplasty, which opens narrowed or blocked arteries. Sometimes surgery may be needed to bypass blocked vessels.

By Ginny Greene, Editor 


  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is coronary heart disease? Accessed: 05/21/2014
  • Smith SC Jr, Benjamin EJ, Bonow RO, et al. AHA/ACCF secondary prevention and risk reduction therapy for patients with coronary and other atherosclerotic vascular disease: 2011 update:A guideline from the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology Foundation. Circulation. 2011;124:2458–2473.Accessed: 05/21/2014

The information provided is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be medical advice or a substitute for professional health care. You should consult an appropriate health care professional for your specific needs and to determine whether making a lifestyle change or decision based on this information is appropriate for you. Some treatments mentioned may not be covered by your health plan. Please refer to your benefit plan documents for information about coverage.

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