What is Heart Disease?

Heart disease remains the leading killer in America, but even if you have a family history, heart disease and heart attacks are not inevitable. A healthy diet, regular exercise, cholesterol-lowering drugs, and lifesaving surgeries can reduce your risk of having—or dying from—a heart attack.

Coronary heart disease (CAD) is the most common of many types of heart disease, not only in men but also in women. It is caused by atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, which occurs when plaque from cholesterol and other substances accumulate in the arteries. Because arteries supply blood to the heart, atherosclerosis interferes with blood flow by narrowing the path for blood to get to the heart. As time goes on, less and less oxygen makes it to the heart, which can cause a heart attack. Coronary artery disease can lead to heart failure and arrhythmias (irregular heart beats).

While some people are genetically predisposed to heart disease, it often develops due to poor lifestyle habits. Problems are most likely to appear after 55. A woman's risk increases dramatically when she hits menopause, usually in her early 50s. Common risk factors for both men and women include being overweight or obese, smoking, not exercising, and eating an unhealthy diet that’s high in fatty, processed foods. Having chronically high blood pressure (hypertension) can also damage to the arteries.

Heart disease is chronic, meaning it never goes away. But a host of medications can control it very effectively. Many of these drugs attack high blood pressure and cholesterol, helping to keep them in normal range. This reduces blockages in the arteries, allowing essential oxygen and nutrients to reach the heart. Surgery is another option. Two frequent procedures are inserting a wire-mesh stent to mechanically prop the artery open (angioplasty), and bypass surgery. This is when doctors literally "bypass" the diseased artery, creating an alternate route with blood vessels taken from other parts of the body to improve the supply of blood to the heart.

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