The heart pumps blood to supply the body with oxygen and nutrients. The heart muscle also needs its own supply of blood, which it gets through vessels called the coronary arteries. If the coronary arteries become narrowed or partially blocked by the accumulation of fatty materials, the heart muscle is deprived of the oxygen it needs to function. The narrowing or blockage of the arteries is commonly called coronary artery disease or CAD.
As the disease progresses, the heart muscle may not get enough blood — especially under the stress of exercise — which often causes chest pain or other symptoms that should signal you to see your doctor. When one or more of the coronary arteries become blocked, a heart attack can occur.
Many people think that heart disease is a natural part of getting older, but that is not the case. While there are unchangeable risk factors for heart disease — including heredity, hormone status and age — heart disease is largely preventable when one makes healthy lifestyle choices. Each of us can take steps every day to lower our risks and prevent a heart attack and stroke.
You can change the following risk factors:
- Overweight or obesity
- Lack of physical activity
- Tobacco use
- Alcohol use
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
Heart Disease and Women
More than 500,000 women die from heart disease in the United States each year — almost twice as many women as breast, lung, ovarian and uterine cancers combined. The American Heart Association calls it the "silent epidemic" because most Americans are still not aware of how common it is in women.
The signs and symptoms of heart attack for women are often different than those of men. Although men and women most commonly experience chest pain when having a heart attack, women are more likely to experience shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain. Women are also less likely than men to believe they are having a heart attack and therefore more likely to delay seeking emergency treatment.
Call 911 if you are actively experiencing:
- Pain or discomfort in the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back in a few minutes. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
- Pain or discomfort in other areas of the upper body, including the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach. More specifically, pain not sensitive to touch and possibly pain associated with breathlessness or exhaustion.
- Other symptoms, such as a shortness of breath, breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institutes of Health.