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Risk Factors for Coronary Artery Disease

Interventional Cardiology
The Chester County Hospital and Health System

Published: August 2, 1010

Coronary Artery Disease (CAD), also known as atherosclerotic heart disease, is caused by plaque inside the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle (plaque is composed of cholesterol, old cells and other substances). When severe enough, blockages can cause chest pain (angina), weakened heart muscle, or heart attack (myocardial infarction). CAD remains the #1 killer of both men and women. Every 34 seconds, an American suffers a heart attack and every minute someone will die from one. Knowing the risks could save your life.

Risk factors for developing CAD are divided into those you can change and those you can't. The American Heart Association has identified six modifiable risk factors: high blood pressure (Hypertension), elevated sugars (Diabetes), tobacco exposure, elevated cholesterol, physical inactivity, and obesity. Age and family history are risk factors that you can't change. It is important to know these risk factors because the majority of them are based on choices we make every day.

High blood pressure is influenced by daily salt intake, weight and activity level. Begin reading labels and remember that canned foods, preserved meats, and most restaurant meals have the highest salt content. Eating prepared meals at home will allow the most control of salt intake.

Diabetes accelerates the CAD process and is a risk factor for other diseases including peripheral arterial disease (PAD) and stroke. Diabetes is most commonly caused by fat cells which reduce the body's sensitivity to insulin, the hormone that decreases blood sugar. This process can often be reversed with weight loss.

Cholesterol can be divided into "good" (HDL) and "bad" (LDL and triglycerides) cholesterol. Your cholesterol profile can be improved by reducing saturated fats, eliminating trans fats, and choosing more healthy monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Combined with increased fruits, vegetables, and exercise, this lifestyle can increase good cholesterol and reduce bad.

Both smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke carry the same increased risk. In addition to accelerating CAD and making a heart attack more likely, tobacco exposure also increases the risk of stroke and some forms of cancer. Although everyone associates smoking with lung cancer, more smokers actually die from heart disease. As a result, exposure to tobacco is the single most important risk factor that you can change.

Physical inactivity and obesity are a growing problem, with one in three Americans currently obese. Going to the gym would be great, but simply adjusting daily life to incorporate a more active lifestyle can help. If your doctor agrees, park farther away and walk; use the stairs instead of the elevator; bicycle instead of drive; or deliver messages personally instead of email or text. These simple steps can help burn calories, lose weight, decrease blood pressure, decrease cholesterol and increase physical fitness.

Knowing the risk factors and adjusting lifestyle to reduce or eliminate them can decrease the risk of CAD. Talk to your primary care doctor or search the American Heart Association website at www.hearthub.org to learn more.

This article was published as part of the Daily Local News Medical Column series which appears every Monday. It has been reprinted by permission of the Daily Local News.

Last Updated: 1/2/2012