Coronary heart disease

What is coronary heart disease, what causes it and how is your heart affected?

Coronary heart disease, also known as ischemic heart disease, affects around 1.4 million Australians and is the single biggest cause of death in Australia.

What is coronary heart disease?

Coronary heart disease happens when the blood supply to your heart is reduced or blocked by fatty deposits that build up on the inner walls of your coronary arteries. 

Because blood flow to the heart is blocked, this can lead to symptoms like chest pain (angina), heart attacks and strokes.

What causes coronary heart disease?

Coronary heart disease starts to develop when there is too much ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL-cholesterol) in your blood. This can lead to fatty deposits building up inside your arteries. This process is called atherosclerosis. 

Animal products like meat and full fat dairy foods (e.g. butter) can be high in LDL-cholesterol. So you should only eat these foods in limited amounts. 

The ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL-cholesterol) made by your body can help ‘mop up’ the LDL-cholesterol and prevent it building up in your arteries. 

Some plant foods can also help lower your LDL-cholesterol including oats, whole wheat products, nuts (e.g. walnuts, almonds) and legumes (peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas).

What can happen if you have coronary heart disease?

Coronary heart disease can start when you’re young and often develops without symptoms, so even if you have it you may not realise you do until you have a heart attack or stroke. 

Atherosclerosis can cause problems all over the body wherever it occurs in an artery including: 

  • Narrowed arteries. If your blood vessels become clogged and narrow, the blood flow to your heart reduces and your blood pressure increases. Sometimes this can lead to chest pain or angina. 
  • Heart attack. This happens if an artery gets completely blocked and blood stops flowing to your heart, causing damage to the heart muscle. 
  • Aneurysm. This is an abnormal bulge or ballooning in the wall of an artery that fills with blood. This can cause the artery to burst. It can happen when the artery wall is damaged due to atherosclerosis and becomes weak. 
  • Cerebrovascular disease. This happens when atherosclerosis affects the blood vessels that feed your brain. If an artery in the brain gets blocked or ruptures, it can cause a stroke. 
  • Peripheral artery disease. When the arteries in your arms and legs become clogged, you can experience pain – usually in the calves – when walking or climbing stairs and reduced mobility. 

If you think you may be at risk of coronary heart disease, or you want to know more about diagnosing or treating heart disease, make an appointment with your doctor.

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