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Basics of Heart & Vascular Disease

The heart pumps blood throughout the body, carrying oxygen to the heart and the rest of the body through blood vessels called arteries. Sometimes a fatty material called plaque builds up in the arteries. This can narrow the arteries and inhibit the flow of blood and oxygen. Plaque buildup in the coronary arteries can lead to a heart attack. Some risk factors for heart disease can't be controlled: age, gender or family history. Other risk factors can be controlled, such as high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, physical activity or being overweight.

Understanding Heart Disease

The heart is a muscle that pumps blood throughout the body. Like other muscles, the heart needs a steady supply of oxygen to function. Blood carries oxygen to the heart and the rest of the body through blood vessels called arteries. Sometimes a fatty material called plaque builds up in the arteries. This can narrow the arteries and inhibits the flow of blood and oxygen. Plaque buildup in the coronary arteries can lead to a heart attack.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Arteries

Healthy arteries have flexible walls and smooth inner linings. Blood flows freely through them to deliver oxygen all over the body. Coronary arteries, which lie on the outside surface of the heart, deliver oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle.

If an artery's inner lining is damaged, cholesterol and other harmful fats in the blood can collect in the artery wall. This buildup forms plaque, which narrows the channel where blood flows. As a result, less blood can flow through. If plaque breaks open or a blood clot forms, the artery may be blocked entirely. With heart disease, these problems occur in the coronary arteries. Heart disease is also called coronary artery disease or CAD.

How Heart Disease Develops

Heart disease develops when plaque clogs or blocks one or more coronary arteries. These arteries carry oxygen-rich blood to your heart muscle.

Atherosclerosis develops in stages. First, medical conditions, poor lifestyle habits or other factors damage the walls of the coronary arteries. Cholesterol and other fatty substances in the blood collect on the damaged artery walls.

The fatty substances build up, layer upon layer, and form a hard substance called plaque. The plaque buildup narrows the artery, decreasing or blocking the flow of blood.

What's at Risk

Damage to a coronary artery causes less blood to flow to the heart muscle. The decreased blood flow may lead to chest pain, a common symptom of angina. When a coronary is blocked, oxygen-rich blood can't reach the heart muscle artery beyond the block, and a heart attack occurs. If the muscle goes without oxygen for too long, that part of the heart muscle dies.

Arteries to the brain can become blocked. When this happens, part of the brain can't get oxygen and is damaged, causing a stroke. Stroke can result in speech and memory problems, paralysis and even death.

If an artery that carries blood to the kidneys is blocked, the kidneys may be damaged.

The aorta is the body's main artery. If this artery is damaged, the affected section can weaken and balloon out, which is called an aortic aneurysm.

If the arteries in the leg are clogged with plaque, you may have cramping or aching in your thighs, calves or buttocks when you walk. This is known as peripheral artery disease or PAD.

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