Coronary artery disease doesn't develop overnight. It starts with risk factors for CAD and can lead to more serious conditions if it's not diagnosed and treated. That's what the heart disease continuum represents—the chain of events that can lead to CAD and potentially to other more serious forms of heart disease.
Here's how the heart disease continuum progresses:
Coronary artery disease risk factors
High blood pressureA blood pressure reading above 120/80 raises your risk of CAD—and the higher your reading, the more at risk you are.
High cholesterolThe higher your blood cholesterol level, the more at risk you are for CAD and a heart attack. LDL ("bad") cholesterol contributes to cholesterol buildup in the arteries, and HDL ("good") cholesterol protects against heart disease.
DiabetesDiabetes occurs when your body cannot absorb blood sugar properly because it does not produce enough insulin or it does not use insulin correctly. Having diabetes doubles your risk of CAD.
Overweight and obesityWhether you are at a healthy weight is determined by combining your height and weight, called your body mass index (BMI).
To calculate your own body mass index, use a BMI Calculator.
SmokingSmoking tobacco products or exposure to second-hand smoke raises your risk of CAD. Smoking triggers the buildup of plaque and increases your risk of blood clots in the arteries, which may lead to a heart attack.
Unhealthy dietAn unhealthy diet can increase your risk of CAD. Foods rich in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol raise LDL, or "bad," cholesterol in your body.
These foods include: high-fat dairy products, fatty meats, baked goods, eggs, some shellfish, chocolate, and deep fried or processed foods. Salty foods can increase your risk of high blood pressure.
Lack of physical exercisePeople who don't get regular physical activity are twice as likely to develop CAD as those who exercise.
StressStress and anxiety may cause your arteries to tighten, which can raise your blood pressure. Common triggers for a heart attack often involve anger or an emotionally upsetting event.
AtherosclerosisA condition in which plaque builds up in the arteries and hardens over time. This buildup causes the arteries to narrow, restricting oxygen-rich blood flow to the organs and other parts of the body.
CADCoronary artery disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women. It occurs when the arteries narrow, causing blood supply to the heart muscle to diminish or cease altogether. This can lead to chest pain (angina) or a heart attack.
Heart attack/strokeA heart attack occurs when a blockage or clot in an artery causes the heart muscle to stop receiving oxygen-rich blood. This can cause an irregular heartbeat (called an arrhythmia) and can affect the heart's ability to pump blood into the rest of the body as well as into its own muscle. Eventually, if muscle cells are cut off from a blood supply for too long, they begin to die.
A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is cut off due to a blockage or clot in an artery, or when a blood vessel in the brain breaks and bleeds into the brain.
Congestive heart failureHeart failure does not mean your heart has stopped beating. It is a condition in which the heart is not able to pump blood to the rest of the body as well as it should, leading to fluid retention in the lungs, feet, ankles, and legs, as well as tiredness, and shortness of breath.