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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.

    Other names for CAD

    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:

    • age
    • family history of early heart disease
    • high blood pressure 
    • high cholesterol
    • tobacco use
    • lack of regular exercise
    • obesity
    • high level of stress
    • diabetes