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Coronary artery disease

Atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries which causes a reduced blood supply to the heart muscle

Cardiovascular disease

Disease that affects the heart and circulatory system.

Atrial fibrillation

An irregular rhythm of the atria of the heart which makes the heart work less effectively

Long QT syndrome

A genetic problem in the heart which can lead to the sudden death of apparently fit young people

Genetic problems

Problems which are inherited.


When a fatty deposit or plaque builds up on the wall of an artery and reduces the blood flow through it.

Heart attack

The result of a lack of blood to the heart muscle due to atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries. It can be fatal.


A lipid which can be measured in the blood. High levels are linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease


An irregular rhythm of the heart


A diagnostic test for problems with the coronary arteries.


A disorder where an excessive amount of fat has accumulated in the body. It results when the energy taken in as food is stored in the body instead of being used up through activity


Fatty substance that can coat the lining of arteries and cause cardiovascular disease.


The pain resulting from atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries.


An electrocardiogram, a way of diagnosing heart problems by recording the electrical activity of the heart.

Cardiovascular disease

There are a number of common things that can go wrong with your heart and circulatory system. They can be quite minor or life threatening. Up to a third of adult deaths in the UK alone are linked to cardiovascular disease.

Cardiovascular diseases include:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Atherosclerosis - this is when a fatty deposit or plaque builds up inside an artery so the artery wall becomes harder and the gap for the blood to flow through gets narrower.
Artery with and without atherosclerosis

The build-up of plaque in atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis is the cause of many serious cardiovascular conditions including:

  • Coronary artery disease is when atherosclerosis takes place in one of the coronary arteries. This reduces the blood supply to the heart muscle itself. The lack of food and oxygen can cause problems including pain and shortness of breath when you exercise, this is known as angina.
  • A stroke happens when a blood clot forms in one of the blood vessels supplying the brain with food and oxygen. This is often the result of atherosclerosis in the vessels. If a blood vessel in the brain breaks and bleeds this can also cause a stroke. Bleeding in the brain is often the result of high blood pressure.
  • A heart attack results if one or more branches of the coronary artery become completely blocked by plaque or by a clot which forms as a result of the plaque. In a heart attack part of the heart muscle is starved of oxygen. In a severe heart attack the patient may die. About 27% of all deaths in countries such as the UK are caused by coronary heart disease.
  • Atrial fibrillation is a form of arrhythmia when the natural rhythm of the heart is disturbed. The atria beat very fast and irregularly so they do not empty properly.
  • Genetic problems with the heart such as long QT syndrome can cause serious problems. This is the most common cause of death due to heart problems in teenagers and young adults.

Investigating heart disease

When patients have symptoms which might be caused by heart disease, doctors need ways of finding out what is going on in the heart.

One way to investigate the heart is to take an angiogram. A dye which shows up on X-rays is injected into the blood stream. Images taken as it flows through the coronary arteries show up any blockages.

Angiograms show up a blocked coronary artery

Angiograms show up a blocked coronary artery

Another way to investigate the heart is to use an ECG (electrocardiogram). This machine gives images of the electrical activity of the heart. Doctors can use this to see how the heart is beating.

Angiograms show up a blocked coronary artery

An ECG trace of a normal heart beat

ECGs are used to diagnose heart disease

Factors affecting cardiovascular disease

Many factors increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Many of them are exactly the same as the risk factors for high blood pressure! Some of them you can do nothing about - they are shown in black. Some of them (shown in red) are in your hands - you have the power to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD):

  • It may run in the family - there is a genetic tendency to develop CVD such as hypertension
  • Age - the older you are, the more likely you are to suffer from CVD
  • Being male - men are more likely to suffer from CVD than women, particularly before women go through the menopause
  • Being overweight - obesity is closely linked to CVD (see graph below)
  • Smoking - smoking narrows and hardens the arteries which causes CVD
  • Lack of exercise - if you don't exercise your cardiovascular system is not very fit and your risk of disease increases - your risk goes up
  • High blood cholesterol - this may be genetic or related to the amount of fat in the diet.

The relationship between obesity and coronary heart disease is shown in the graph below.

The relationship between obesity and coronary heart disease