Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School


What Is It?

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the narrowing of coronary arteries. These are the blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. The condition is also called coronary heart disease (CHD).

CAD is usually caused by atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the buildup of plaque inside the coronary arteries. These plaques are made up of fatty deposits and fibrous tissue.

Atherosclerosis can significantly narrow the coronary arteries. This decreases the blood supply to the heart muscle. It triggers a type of chest pain called angina.

Atherosclerosis also can cause a blood clot to form inside a narrowed coronary artery. This causes a heart attack. A heart attack can significantly damage the heart muscle.

The risk factors for atherosclerosis and CAD are basically the same. These risk factors include:

  • High blood cholesterol level

  • High level of LDL (bad) cholesterol

  • Low level of HDL (good) cholesterol

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)

  • Diabetes

  • Family history of CAD at a younger age

  • Cigarette smoking

  • Obesity

  • Physical inactivity

CAD is the most common chronic, life-threatening illness in most of the world's developed nations.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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