Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Coronary Heart Disease Overview

Prevention and Treatment

What can be done to prevent the disease?

Although family medical history or genetics can't be changed, a person can lower his or her risk for developing CHD. Here are some steps that a person can take to lower his or her coronary risk factors:

  • Avoid smoking
  • Control blood cholesterol and LDL
  • Control diabetes
  • Exercise regularly
  • Follow a diet that is designed to lessen the risk factors for heart disease
  • Keep high blood pressure under control

Before menopause, women have some protection against heart disease. Experts believe this is due in part to the fact that they have adequate levels of estrogen in their bodies. This hormone may have a protective effect. Estrogen tends to raise HDL cholesterol, known as the good cholesterol. It also lowers total cholesterol. There is no proof that estrogen replacement therapy has this same protective effect in a woman who has gone through menopause. Estrogen replacement therapy is a form of hormone replacement therapy, or HRT.

In fact, the latest recommendation from the American Heart Association, or AHA, does not advise starting HRT for the sole purpose of preventing heart disease. There is not enough data to support this. This same advisory issued by the AHA in 2001 recommends that women who already have heart disease should not be started on HRT. In fact, a recent study has even shown that if HRT is started after a woman has a heart attack, she may be at a higher risk for worsening of her angina, or having other serious cardiac complications.

How is the disease diagnosed?

The diagnosis of CHD starts with a medical history and physical exam. An electrocardiogram, or EKG, may show abnormalities. However, an EKG may be normal between attacks of angina.

A stress EKG is an EKG taken before, during, and after exercise. It is designed to bring on an attack of angina and record the changes that take place in the heart. Sometimes the person is injected with a substance called thallium during the stress test. Special pictures are then taken of the heart. The thallium scan can show areas of the heart that are damaged.

The most reliable test for diagnosing CHD is a cardiac catheterization. In this procedure, a thin hollow tube or catheter is placed into an artery in the leg or arm. It is then passed through the artery and into the coronary artery. A contrast agent is injected into the tube. This allows the doctor to watch the blood flow through the heart and its arteries.

Other techniques that are being used to help in the diagnosis of CHD include stress echocardiograms and new generations of CT scans.

What are the long-term effects of the disease?

CHD is a progressive disease that can lead to heart attack and sudden death.

What are the risks to others?

Coronary heart disease is not contagious. However, it does tend to run in families.

What are the treatments for the disease?

Several types of medicines are often used together to reduce the symptoms of stable angina caused by CHD.

  • Beta-blockers, such as atenolol or metoprolol, are used to decrease the work level of the heart
  • Nitrates, such as nitroglycerin or isosorbide mononitrate, help to expand the blood vessels that supply the heart
  • Aspirin may prevent heart attacks and warfarin may prevent blood clots. However, the use of warfarin in treating stable angina remains controversial