Help for reversing coronary artery disease
The coronary arteries are responsible for delivering blood to the heart. When the arteries are open, blood can flow freely. But if plaque builds in the arteries, they can become clogged and narrow, a condition known as coronary artery disease.
When the arteries can't effectively supply oxygenated blood to your heart, you're at higher risk for a heart attack. Addressing specific risk factors and making lifestyle changes may help with reversing coronary artery disease or slowing its progression.
Understanding coronary artery disease
Coronary artery disease is a heart condition caused by plaque buildup. Plaque is made of fatty deposits of cholesterol and calcium, which develop over time in the lining of the arteries. As plaque narrows the arteries, blood has a harder time flowing through, and blood clots may develop, increasing your risk for a heart attack. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, coronary artery disease is the most common type of heart disease in the United States, affecting more than 20 million people.
Know the symptoms of coronary artery disease
Because coronary artery disease can develop slowly over time, some patients have mild symptoms. Others have no signs at all until they have a heart attack. Symptoms may include:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath, especially after exercising
Coronary artery disease: Are you at risk?
Some people are at higher risk than others for coronary artery disease. Risk factors include:
- Age: Risk increases as you get older.
- Genetics: You're more likely to develop coronary artery disease if you have a family history of heart disease.
- Lifestyle: Smoking, drinking alcohol excessively, eating an unhealthy diet, or living a sedentary lifestyle increases your risk of coronary artery disease.
- Other medical conditions: Patients who have diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or kidney disease have an increased risk of developing coronary artery disease.
Risk increases more if you have more than one of these factors — for example, having both Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
Diagnosing and treating coronary artery disease
If your healthcare provider suspects you have coronary artery disease, they will review your medical history, family history of heart disease, and any existing symptoms. They will also check your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. You may have additional testing to assess your risk, such as:
- Cardiac CT scan
- Electrocardiogram, or EKG
- Exercise stress test
The earlier you take steps to treat and address coronary artery disease, the better. In addition to lifestyle changes to diet and exercise, your primary care provider or cardiologist may prescribe medication to help you manage your cholesterol levels or blood pressure.
If you have damaged arteries, you may need surgery to improve blood flow to your heart and lower your risk of a heart attack. Surgical procedures to treat coronary artery disease include:
- Atherectomy — This noninvasive procedure uses a wire-guided catheter to remove plaque from the arteries.
- Coronary angioplasty — This noninvasive procedure uses a catheter to guide a tiny balloon to a narrowed artery, where it inflates and enlarges the artery pathway.
- Coronary artery bypass surgery — This procedure involves taking part of a healthy blood vessel from another area of the body and using it to create a new pathway to the heart.
Can you reverse heart disease?
Although it may not be possible to reverse existing damage to the arteries, healthy lifestyle changes can significantly decrease your risk for coronary artery disease and other forms of heart disease. If you've been diagnosed with coronary artery disease or have one or more of the risk factors listed above, talk with your provider about steps you can take to slow the progression. Here are some of the proven ways to reduce your risk:
- Eat a heart-healthy diet. Nutrition plays a major role in preventing and managing heart disease. You should strive to eat a wide variety of healthy foods and limit added sugar, salt, saturated fat, and alcohol. Choose colorful, fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains, such as oats, barley, and brown rice. Lean sources of protein — chicken, turkey, fish, and beans — are better than red meat. And make healthy swaps. Cook with olive oil instead of butter, and drink sparkling water instead of sugary soft drinks and juices. If you need help developing a healthy eating plan, your provider can connect you to a nutritionist or registered dietitian.
- Live an active lifestyle. You should aim to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day. Staying active helps you maintain a healthy body weight and manage your blood pressure. Whether it's jogging, cycling, or playing tennis, choose activities you enjoy so you're more likely to stick to a routine. Walking is also a great way to stay active and reduce coronary artery disease. Exercise with a friend if you need help staying motivated.
- Don't smoke. If you smoke, ask your provider for help with quitting. They can refer you to smoking cessation programs and resources.