What Is Heart Disease, What Are The Causes, And How Long Does It Take To Develop?

Dr. Robert Califf answers the question: 'What Is Heart Disease, What Causes It?'

ByABC News
November 12, 2008, 2:10 PM

— -- Question: What is heart disease, what are the causes, and how long does it take to develop?

Answer: Coronary artery disease is alarmingly common in our society. You'd think that we could very easily describe what it is, but, in fact, simply put: it is disease of the arteries lining the surface of the heart. The heart is a very strong pump. It has to pump blood to the rest of the body, and therefore, it's very dependent upon blood itself to develop the energy it takes to service this very strong pump that keeps us alive.

The coronary arteries, unfortunately, are prone to become diseased, and by 'diseased' we mean thickening of the wall of the artery itself. This often begins very early in life, and, in fact, a lot of the concern about the diets that our teenagers are eating today has to do with the early formation of disease in these arteries, or thickening of the walls of the coronary arteries.

The risk factors that we know about are very well understood. That is high blood pressure, high blood sugar or diabetes, cigarette smoking, lack of exercise, and of course, high cholesterol in the bloodstream. Some people think that lifestyle factors are also very important in this regard, that is, the amount of stress that we have in everyday life, and perhaps how we respond to that stress.

One thing that makes this so difficult to describe is that this is a silent disease. It develops often for decades before one develops symptoms, and so if we could really look inside the heart, we'd see that many people have coronary artery disease at a very young age, even in soldiers killed in battle in their late teen years or early twenties, often thickening of the coronary arteries has already occurred. But the symptomatic manifestations, when we really know we have it, often begins in the fifth, sixth, or seventh decade of life, and it's a major cause of death and disability in the older population in developed countries.

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