Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the leading cause of death in America, claiming nearly 600,000 lives a year.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to significantly lower your risk of developing CAD.
The trick, says UW Medicine
cardiologist, Dr. Eugene Yang
, a specialist in the treatment of CAD, is prevention, early detection and effective treatment.
"CAD occurs when cholesterol deposits build up in the arteries over time, which leads to blockages that reduce blood flow," says Dr. Yang. "While it can take decades before the blockages become severe enough to affect a patient, identifying it early on and taking steps to lower your risk can help prevent the disease from progressing and resulting in complications like heart attacks."
One the best ways to protect yourself from CAD is by adopting a healthy lifestyle.
- Diet: Eat a "heart healthy" diet low in saturated fat, salt and high in unsaturated fats, such as found in olive oil, fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- Get active: Exercise regularly, at least 30 minutes of moderately-intensive activity-such as a brisk walk-five days a week.
- Smoking Cessation: And, if you smoke, stop.
If you can't find 30 minutes a day to exercise, you can get a similar benefit by breaking up your exercise into 10- to 15-minute periods of activity several times a day throughout the week, says Dr. Yang.
A healthy diet and regular exercise will also help you maintain a healthy weight, reducing your risk of not only heart disease but diabetes and high blood pressure.
Preventive treatment: blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar
High blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and diabetes - all major risk factors of CAD - are treatable. So it is important to have your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar checked regularly and if they are elevated, treated. Early treatment can make all the difference, significantly reducing the risk of CAD, says Dr. Yang.
Testing: symptoms of CAD can be subtle
The symptoms of CAD can vary. The classic symptom is chest pain or a sensation of pressure in the chest. But sometimes the symptoms can be as subtle as shortness of breath or a vague discomfort that might be mistaken for indigestion. It's important to tell your healthcare professional about such symptoms. If your doctor is concerned, there are a number of tests he or she might recommend:
EKG or electrocardiogram
This test takes only a few minutes and can detect abnormalities in heart rhythm and function, including signs of CAD. In this test, electrode sensors are taped to your chest, which record the electrical impulses generated by the heart muscle as it contracts and relaxes with each heart beat. These signals are converted into a tracing that your physician can use to look for changes in the heart that can be caused by CAD and other disorders.
Exercise stress test or treadmill test
For this test, also often called an exercise treadmill test, you are asked to exercise, either by walking or running on a treadmill or cycling on a stationary bike, while wearing EKG electrodes. Often, a heart tracing that looks normal at rest, will reveal signs of CAD or other problems, as the heart beats faster and works harder during exercise. In some cases, particularly with patients who are unable to exercise vigorously, a drug may be given to increase the heart rate.
Imaging tests: echocardiograms and perfusion tests
Imaging tests, such as heart ultrasound or echocardiogram, which can look at the heart wall motion, and perfusion tests, that can reveal how well the heart muscle is being supplied with blood, are used with exercise stress testing to evaluate heart function and coronary blood supply.
When your physician is concerned that you may have significant CAD, he or she will often recommend a coronary angiogram. In this test, a dye is put into the blood stream that allows the blood vessels to be seen with an x-ray machine. The image can show if there is narrowing in the coronary arteries, where it is located and how serious it is.
Depending on the results of these tests and other factors, such as your age and other medical conditions, your doctor may offer you a variety of treatment options, says Dr. Yang. In some cases, simple lifestyle changes may be enough, in others medications may be in order, and in still others surgery or some other procedure, such as the placement of a stent that can open up a narrowed coronary artery might be the best course.
"Before deciding which treatment option to choose, you and your physician need to take into consideration your lifestyle, personal preferences as well as your risk factors and test results," says Dr.Yang. "You and your physician should take a holistic approach to your heart care."
Take control of your heart health and schedule an appointment for a routine physical by calling 855.520.5151. Or, fill out an online form to request an appointment with experts at the UW Medicine Regional Heart Center.