We are all born with three coronary arteries, which continuously feed blood to our hearts. They are called coronary arteries because they form a corona, or crown, around the heart. They are approximately three to four millimeters in diameter and taper as they give off branches. As the heart pumps freshly oxygenated blood around the body, the first thing it does is to feed these coronary arteries so that they can maintain its life-sustaining function.
Coronary heart disease has existed for generations and has even been found in Egyptian mummies, as determined by CAT scan images of their arteries. Eskimos living in isolated areas of the world have been found to have this disease as well, perhaps due to their ultra-high fat blubber diet. There are certain societies, however, which have traditionally been almost 100% free of this killer, such as Uganda and Papua New Guinea. Therefore, much has been gained by studying their lifestyles.
What causes coronary heart disease?
At first, coronary heart disease was assumed to be an unavoidable byproduct of aging. Certain characteristics predispose individuals to progressive narrowing and blockage of the heart arteries. This process is called coronary artery disease.
Smoking and other health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are among the major coronary heart disease causes that can result in narrowing of heart arteries. Certain individuals can have a genetic problem with their cholesterol metabolism: about one in every four hundred people inherits a bad gene from their parents, which causes them to have higher than normal cholesterol levels and leads to heart disease decades earlier than most. In addition, one person in a million receives two bad cholesterol genes (one from each parent) and as a result, fatal heart disease can develop – even as teenagers.
What are the symptoms?
Coronary heart disease symptoms can develop progressively in people as young as 19 and 20 years old and more often than not, the symptoms are unrecognizable, for example narrowing of the arteries. Generally, cardiologists observe that an artery which has narrowed down by more than 70% has the potential to rob the heart of sufficient blood that it brings on warning symptoms.
The classic symptom of this disease is angina pectoris, which means “choking in the chest”. Angina pectoris is characterized by the patient feeling tightness or squeezing in the central chest area and possibly into the neck or arms upon frequent movement. By stopping and resting, these symptoms go away within a couple of minutes. There are other symptoms, including, jaw pain, back pain, sweating, nausea, a racing heart, fatigue, ear or head pain and shortness of breath. These may be the symptoms found more commonly in women with clogged arteries. Again, by the time these symptoms develop, at least one and often multiple arteries have blockages present in them.
This is the reason that many patients, once the first time symptoms of coronary heart disease manifest themselves, opt for a bypass operation or a stent. Although there are classic symptoms and less common warning signs, it is recommended that individuals leading a busy and hectic life should get an advanced screening for silent coronary heart disease to avoid a tragic or fatal heart attack. Too often, the very first sign of coronary heart disease is a cardiac arrest and death.