People with coronary artery disease sometimes have chest pain known as angina. But often CAD produces no symptoms at all. These tests are commonly used to detect coronary artery disease:
- Stress test. An ECG, a graphic record of the electrical currents generated by the heart, is first taken while a person is resting to provide a baseline reading. The test is repeated during exercise to make sure that enough oxygen is reaching the heart.
- Echocardiogram. In this test, ultrasound waves reflecting off the surface of your heart are used to create an image of the organ on a video screen.
- Thallium scan. Combined with the stress test, this test involves injecting a radioactive substance, thallium, into the bloodstream to help locate the site of a blockage.
- Coronary angiogram. This X-ray imaging of the inside of the artery is obtained by threading a catheter (a thin tube) through the aorta and injecting a special dye directly into the coronary arteries.
There’s no doubt about it: Coronary artery disease (CAD) is serious business. Left untreated, the condition can lead to angina and heart attack. Still, there is much you can do to avoid heart attack even if you’ve been diagnosed with CAD. What’s more, recent research findings suggest that you may be able to halt or even reverse CAD.
To find out how, just read on.
How arteries become diseased
Over a lifetime, the average heart pumps some 1 million barrels of blood, nourishing trillions of cells all over the body. But the heart’s first priority is nourishing itself. It does that through the coronary arteries that branch out of the heart at the top and then loop back in. When coronary arteries are healthy, their linings are clean, smooth and slick. The artery walls are flexible, and they expand easily to let more blood flow through during times of increased physical or mental stress.
But perfectly healthy coronary arteries can begin to change as early as childhood, when “plaque,” a fatty substance that sticks to the artery lining, starts to form. Over time, plaque buildup causes cell damage that reduces the vessels’ diameter and makes them stiff. Eventually, a blood clot may form at the site of the damage, blocking the artery and slowing or stopping blood flow.
Can CAD be reversed?
According to conventional wisdom, once plaque appears in the arteries, it’s there to stay. Recently, however, a number of studies suggest that plaque can be made to regress, or shrink. One study in particular showed that lifestyle changes alone may help reduce the size of coronary plaque.
The study had people follow a meatless diet in which fat accounted for just 10 percent of calories. Although they could eat as many calories as they wanted, the subjects were asked to restrict animal products to egg whites and one cup per day of nonfat milk or yogurt. Caffeine was forbidden, and alcohol intake was severely curtailed. The mainstay of the diet was an unlimited quantity of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. In addition to following the eating plan, subjects practiced various stress-management techniques such as meditation, deep-breathing exercises and stretching.
Even a little goes a long way
If you want to help your heart, do you have to follow the same restrictive diet as the subjects in the study? No. As it turns out, making lifestyle changes is not a case of “all or nothing.” Even small, steady changes, like the ones that follow, can help slow the progress of CAD:
- Eat a variety of foods, because no single food supplies all the nutrients you need.
- Cut back on fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. That means limiting your intake of meat, dairy products and many packaged foods like crackers and prepared baked goods.
- Choose a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables and fruits. They’re a low-fat source of vitamins, minerals and complex carbohydrates.
- Complement your new eating program with physical activity. Not only will exercise help you maintain your weight, it will also boost your sense of well-being.
- Cut down your sodium (salt) intake.
- Avoid sugary foods. They supply a lot of calories but few nutrients.
- Drink alcoholic beverages in moderation only. Like sweets, they supply many calories and few nutrients. Too much alcohol can also lead to serious medical conditions.
- Stop smoking!
- Reduce stress by avoiding self-imposed deadlines and by steering clear of anger-provoking situations.