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Helping Your Heart Online Manual

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Coronary artery disease and heart attacks

diagram of atherosclerosis

Coronary artery disease (CAD) occurs when the arteries that supply blood to your heart become narrow. This narrowing is caused by atherosclerosis, a build-up of plaque (fatty deposits). There are two types of plaque:

  • hard: Hard plaque causes the arteries to become hardened and thick. This type of plaque can cause angina and heart attack.
  • soft: Soft plaque can break open or break apart and cause a clot. This type of plaque can cause heart attack or stroke (a blocked blood vessel that stops or interrupts blood and oxygen flow to the brain).

Angina and heart attack can cause the same chest discomfort or pain, but a heart attack doesn't go away after 15 minutes or after taking nitroglycerin. Heart attack, which can cause permanent damage to the heart if medical help isn't sought, is also called a myocardial infarction.

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Nitroglycerin is a medicine that treats or prevents chest pain. Learn more about nitroglycerin.


Other names for CAD, the leading cause of death in the U.S. in both men and women, are:

  • coronary heart disease
  • heart disease
  • ischemic heart disease.

The general term that includes both unstable or prolonged angina and heart attack is acute coronary syndrome.

Risk factors (habits or conditions that increase your chance of getting CAD) are:

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High blood pressure

Hypertension is the term used to describe high blood pressure.

Learn more about high blood pressure here.

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Cholesterol is a fat-like substance made by your liver and found in the food you eat.

Learn more about cholesterol here.

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Tobacco use

Tobacco use is the most preventable cause of death in the U.S. Cigarette smokers are two to four times more likely to develop heart disease than nonsmokers, and 10 times as likely to develop peripheral arterial disease (known as PAD).

Learn more about tobbaco use here.

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Nearly two-thirds of the United States population is overweight. There are many ways to determine if a person is overweight, but experts believe that a person's body mass index (BMI) is the best way to assess an adult's weight in relation to their height.

Learn more about obesity here.

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Stress can come from any situation or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or anxious. What is stressful to one person is not necessarily stressful to another.

Learn more about stress here.

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Source: Allina Health's Patient Education Department, Helping Your Heart, fourth edition, cvs-ahc-90648

First published: 10/04/2002
Last updated: 06/01/2007

Reviewed by: Allina Health's Patient Education Department experts