Causes and Risk Factors

What causes coronary artery disease?

Healthy arteries are normally clean, smooth, and slick. The artery walls are flexible and can expand to let more blood through to the muscle when necessary.

Coronary artery disease begins with an injury to the lining of the artery wall. This injury can be caused by smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes. The injury makes the artery stiff. Have you heard the term "hardening of the arteries"? This is another term for "atherosclerosis" - athero is Greek for gruel or paste and sclerosis means "hardness".

When damage occurs, your body starts a healing process. This healing causes plaque to build up where the arteries are damaged. Over time, plaque can narrow or completely block some of your coronary arteries. This reduces the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your heart muscle.

Plaque also can crack. A blood clot may form at the site of the crack. This narrows the arteries more and worsens chest pain (angina), or causes a heart attack.

Who is at risk?

You are at increased risk of developing coronary artery disease (CAD) if you have any of the following:

  • A history of high cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Being overweight

There are also some risk factors that cannot be avoided-menopause, aging, or having a family history of heart disease. Additionally, men are also at higher risk than women.

You can have a positive impact on some risk factors by:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Taking steps to lower cholesterol
  • Exercising regularly
  • Eating a "heart-healthy" diet
  • Keeping high blood pressure and diabetes under control
  • Seeing your doctor regularly

You can also learn about the signs and symptoms of coronary artery disease, and what to do about them.