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Coronary artery disease can be prevented, risk lessened

Coronary artery disease, the leading cause of death in America, doesn’t happen overnight. Rather, it occurs during the course of a lifetime.

If you’re among the millions whose lifestyle makes you at risk, now’s the time to change course, said Steven Gerndt, M.D., a cardiothoracic surgeon and team leader for cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at Bellin Health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 17 million Americans have coronary artery disease, the most common form of heart disease. About 500,000 people die each year because of coronary artery disease.

Fatty deposits build up and form plaque in the arteries, blocking blood flow to the heart. When the heart muscle doesn’t get enough blood, a person may experience angina – chest pain or discomfort. Other symptoms include shortness of breath with activity, palpitations or dizziness.

When plaque ruptures, it can lead to a clot, which can cause heart attack or stroke.

Certainly, some people have a genetic disposition toward coronary artery disease. However, there are other factors that increase your risk – smoking, high cholesterol, elevated blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and an inactive lifestyle.

“When we talk to patients it’s important to focus on things they have control over,” Gerndt said. “And what is receiving more and more attention is the way diet is fundamental to the issue.”

Simple carbohydrates found in white bread, pasta, pizza, rice, cereals, potatoes and sugar are increasingly blamed for rising rates of coronary artery disease, Gerndt said.

He recommends his patients follow a heart healthy diet that will help control cholesterol and blood pressure, while helping lose weight.

If your lifestyle makes you susceptible to coronary artery disease, you should talk with your doctor. For some people, medication might be needed in addition to a lifestyle change.

Because coronary artery disease develops gradually, patients may want to ask their physician if a coronary calcium scan is advisable, Gerndt said. The region of the coronary arteries is imaged, quantifying the risk of coronary artery disease. It’s especially useful for the middle-aged person who may have some of the lifestyle markers that are associated with coronary artery disease.

For commercial and large group members, prior authorization is required for a coronary calcium scan.

“Lifestyle changes, such as adopting a heart healthy diet and increasing our physical activity can have the added benefit of reducing stress and improving mental health,” Gerndt said. “And that too can help lessen the risk of coronary artery disease.”