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What Does It Mean to Have Coronary Heart Disease?

Here are some facts about coronary heart disease.

doctor talking to an older female patient

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. That’s true for both men and women. It accounts for one of every four deaths.

The most common kind of heart disease is coronary heart disease. Lifestyle changes, medications and certain procedures can help manage this condition and help people live a longer and more active life.

What is coronary heart disease?

Coronary heart disease, also called coronary artery disease, develops when a waxy material called plaque builds up inside the coronary arteries. These are the arteries that supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle.

The plaque can also harden or break open. If the plaque tears open, a blood clot can form on its surface. The clot may partially or completely block the artery. If it blocks it too much, angina or a heart attack can occur. Angina is chest pain or pressure.

A portion of the heart muscle will begin to die if its blood flow is cut off for too long. If blood flow is interrupted, quick treatment is crucial to avoid serious health problems or death.

What causes heart disease?

Having high levels of LDL cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure and smoking put people at greater risk of heart disease. So can  poor diet, lack of exercise and being overweight.

Doctors can measure your risk by checking your blood pressure, weight, blood sugar and cholesterol levels. They will ask if close relatives had heart disease. If your risk is high, the doctor can do tests to further evaluate you for heart disease.

Warning signs of a heart attack

Knowing what a heart attack feels like can save your life or that of a loved one. Call 911 right away if you have any of the most common symptoms:

  • Chest pain or discomfort. The pain, pressure or squeezing feeling is usually in the center or left side of the chest. It usually lasts more than a few minutes.
  • Upper body pain. The discomfort may also be in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, shoulders or upper stomach area.
  • Shortness of breath. This may be the only symptom. Or it may occur before or with chest pain. It can come on when you are resting or doing very little activity.

Other possible symptoms include:

  • Cold sweats
  • Feeling unusually tired, sometimes for days (this is especially true for women)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sudden dizziness or feeling light-headed
  • A sudden change in what you’re feeling; this can involve either new symptoms, stronger ones or symptoms that last longer

Keep in mind that heart attacks vary from one person to another. Not all begin with a crushing chest pain. Some people have mild heart attacks with few symptoms. Remember that the symptoms of a heart attack may come and go over several hours.

If you have diabetes, you may have no symptoms. Or they may be very mild.

Chest pain is the most common symptom for women and men, but women are somewhat more likely than men to have shortness of breath, unusual tiredness, nausea and vomiting and pain in the back, shoulders and jaw.

Treating heart disease

Whether or not you have been diagnosed with heart disease, you can protect your heart by following your doctor’s instructions for medications.

If you have chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, you will need to control and monitor your conditions.

You may also make healthy lifestyle changes. For example:

  • Eating a heart-friendly diet. That means a diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Also include low-fat dairy, fish, nuts, legumes and poultry. Limit unhealthy fats, sodium and added sugars.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Being physically active. Studies show that 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise weekly (or 30 minutes a day for five days a week) brings substantial benefits. If you are physically inactive or you have any health conditions (including pregnancy) or any symptoms of a health condition, check with your doctor before starting an exercise program or increasing your activity level. He or she can tell you what types and amounts of activities are safe and suitable for you.
  • Manage stress, and if you have depression, be sure to seek treatment

Don’t smoke or use tobacco products. And finally, ask your doctor about an annual flu shot and whether you need any other immunizations.

In addition to medicines and lifestyle recommendations, doctors have other ways of treating heart disease, when appropriate. Surgical procedures may sometimes help open up blood flow to the heart.

By Emily Gurnon, Contributing Writer

Eckel RH, Jakicic JM, Ard JD, et al. 2013 AHA/ACC guideline on lifestyle management to reduce cardiovascular risk: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association task force on practice guidelines. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014;63(25_PA):2960-2984. Accessed: October 16, 2015.
Smith, SC Jr., Benjamin EJ, Bonow RI, et al. The American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology Foundation: 2011 update: a guideline from AHA/ACCF secondary prevention and risk reduction therapy for patients with coronary and atherosclerotic vascular disease. Circulation. 2011;124:2458-2473. Accessed: October 16, 2015.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is coronary heart disease? Accessed: October 16, 2015.

Last Updated: October 16, 2015