How Can You Reduce Your Risk of Cardiovascular Disease?

  • Medical Author:
    Daniel Lee Kulick, MD, FACC, FSCAI

    Dr. Kulick received his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Southern California, School of Medicine. He performed his residency in internal medicine at the Harbor-University of California Los Angeles Medical Center and a fellowship in the section of cardiology at the Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center. He is board certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiology.

  • Medical Author: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
    John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

    John P. Cunha, DO, is a U.S. board-certified Emergency Medicine Physician. Dr. Cunha's educational background includes a BS in Biology from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and a DO from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, MO. He completed residency training in Emergency Medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, New Jersey.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Heart health and heart attack prevention overview

  • Coronary atherosclerosis is the hardening and narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle.
  • Coronary atherosclerosis is the major cause of a heart attack (myocardial infarction). Heart attacks are the major cause of sudden unexpected death among otherwise healthy adults in the prime of their lives.
  • Heart attacks are also a significant cause of heart failure (due to weakened heart muscle) in the U.S.
  • Heart failure considerably decreases a person's longevity and quality of life. In dollar terms, coronary heart disease is costly.
  • The total cost of coronary artery bypass surgery, coronary angioplasty and stenting, medications, and hospitalizations exceeds 50 billion dollars annually.
  • Coronary atherosclerosis, and hence heart attacks, are preventable.
  • A person can significantly lower his or her risk of heart attack by:
  • In recent years, other risk factors for coronary atherosclerosis have been identified. These include patients with a high serum homocysteine level and certain subtypes of LDL cholesterol.
  • Cardiovascular disease can be diagnosed and treated by doctors.
  • The following is an article review of the signs, symptoms, risks, and causes of atherosclerosis and heart attacks, and the means for their prevention.

What is atherosclerosis heart disease, and how does cause a heart attack?

  • Atherosclerosis is a gradual process whereby hard cholesterol substances (plaques) are deposited in the walls of the arteries.
  • Cholesterol plaques cause hardening of the artery walls and narrowing of the inner channel (lumen) of the artery.
  • Arteries carry blood enriched with oxygen and nutrients to the vital organs such as the brain, heart, kidneys, and liver.
  • Arteries also transport blood to other tissues such as the fingers, toes, nerves, bones, skin, and muscles.
  • Healthy arteries can deliver an ample supply of blood to the organs and tissues.
  • In contrast, arteries narrowed by atherosclerosis have difficulty delivering blood to the parts of the body they supply. For example, atherosclerosis of the arteries in the legs causes poor circulation in the lower extremities. Poor circulation in the lower extremities can lead to symptoms of pain while walking or exercising, slow wound healing, and leg ulcers.
  • Atherosclerosis also can cause the complete blockage of an artery from a blood clot. This complete blockage interrupts oxygen supply and results in tissue injury or death. Thus, the blockage of an artery that furnishes blood to the brain can lead to a stroke (death of brain tissue). Likewise, the blockage of the arteries to the heart can result in a heart attack (death of heart muscle), also called myocardial infarction (MI).

How early in life does the coronary atherosclerosis heart disease process begin?

  • Although the coronary arteries are wide open at birth, the atherosclerosis process begins early in life. Between the ages of 10 and 20, "fatty streaks" are already being deposited on the inner lining of the coronary arteries. Over the years, some of these fatty streaks grow into larger cholesterol plaques that can protrude into the artery interior space (lumen) and harden the artery walls. Many men and women between the ages of 20 and 30 typically are unaware their coronary arteries are gradually accumulating cholesterol plaques. By ages 40 to 50, many people have developed enough damage to put them at risk for coronary heart disease.

When should you start making changes to prevent a heart attack?

Atherosclerosis prevention should start early, preferably during childhood and adolescence. Most scientists believe preventing atherosclerosis is more effective than trying to reverse established blockages or getting rid of plaques in the arteries. Children and adolescents should be taught heart healthy lifetime habits of regular exercise, quitting smoking, and good nutrition. Many men and women do not take adequate steps to prevent atherosclerosis. Reasons for this failure include:

  • Lack of awareness that they already have coronary atherosclerosis heart disease, and ignorance that coronary atherosclerosis and heart attacks are preventable
  • Lack of awareness of their blood cholesterol levels and profiles
  • Unwillingness or inability to quit cigarette smoking
  • High blood pressure or type 2 diabetes that are either undiagnosed or inadequately controlled
  • Lack of exercise, an excess of fat and cholesterol in their diet, and an inability or unwillingness to lose excess weight
  • Failure to take full advantage of medications that improve cholesterol levels, often out of fear of potential side effects.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 1/12/2017

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