What Is CAD?

Coronary artery disease, or CAD, is a progressive heart disease that is the result of plaque buildup in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. It may also be referred to as coronary heart disease, or simply, heart disease.

In CAD, plaque buildup can create blockages that limit the supply of blood and oxygen to the heart, causing chest pain, commonly called angina. There is also an underlying risk for blood clots that can cause a potentially life-threatening heart attack or stroke.

It is also common for people with CAD to have peripheral artery disease, or PAD. People who have both conditions have an even higher risk for blood clot–related events, like a heart attack or stroke, than people with CAD or PAD alone. If you’ve been diagnosed with CAD, you may want to talk with your healthcare professional about getting screened for PAD as well.

How common is CAD?

CAD is the most common heart disease in the US and is the leading cause of death for both men and women, claiming over 370,000 lives each year.*

*According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

CAD and atherosclerosis

CAD is the end result of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. This is the process by which the arteries become damaged and inflamed as a result of certain health conditions or risk factors. Then, cholesterol, white blood cells, and other substances build up inside the damaged walls, forming plaque.

Plaque can start forming as early as childhood and builds up slowly, over many years. It may help to imagine plaque as a sticky substance, like sludge on the inside of pipes. However, an important difference is that plaque doesn’t just build up on the interior surface of artery walls—it also builds up inside the walls themselves, causing the arteries to thicken and harden over time.

As atherosclerosis progresses and the areas of plaque grow larger, less blood can get through the arteries to supply your heart with the oxygen it needs to function. This reduced blood flow may cause symptoms such as:

  • Chest pain, also referred to as angina
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea or vomiting

CAD and blood clots

People with CAD have an underlying risk for blood clots that can cause a heart attack or stroke. This is because some plaques, in addition to reducing blood flow through the arteries, can rupture. A ruptured plaque triggers your body’s blood-clotting response. A clot forms around the rupture site, creating a blockage and cutting off blood flow and oxygen to your heart. This is what causes a heart attack. If the clot breaks off and travels to your brain, it can cause a stroke. Both of these events can be life threatening.

CAD and cardiovascular health

CAD is such a serious health condition because it involves your cardiovascular system. Cardiovascular means “having to do with the heart and blood vessels."

Your cardiovascular system is also known as your circulatory system. Your heart, arteries, veins, and lungs all work together to move nutrients and oxygen-rich blood to every single part of your body. Because this network connects everything from your brain to your toes, the damage caused to the heart by reduced blood flow or a heart attack can lead to other health conditions down the line, such as:

In addition to following the treatment plan laid out by your healthcare professional, having a heart-healthy lifestyle can help slow the progression of your CAD and lower your risk for other cardiovascular diseases. Learn more about living well with CAD.

Infographic showing the cardiovascular system and how blood flows from the heart to body to lungs