Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the leading cause of death in the United States for males and females. Making changes to diet, lifestyle, and physical activity levels can improve heart health and may help to prevent CAD.

CAD, also known as coronary heart disease, is when the arteries narrow due to a buildup of plaque. While it is a serious condition, it is also preventable.

A person can help prevent CAD by addressing factors that increase their risk, as well as adopting habits that can protect against it.

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Multiple factors can put someone more at risk of developing CAD. Many of these factors may be within a person’s control, such as:

As a result, the things that may help prevent CAD include:

Some risk factors for CAD are not within a person’s control. These include:

  • age
  • sex
  • family history or genetics

While someone cannot change these, addressing other factors can still lower the risk of CAD.

While not relevant to everyone, smoking is an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD), which is the leading cause of death in the United States.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), around 20% of annual deaths from CVD are due to smoking. Passive or secondhand smoke can also raise this risk.

Smoking tobacco harms the heart and blood vessels. When someone inhales tobacco smoke, they breathe in chemicals that can cause plaque buildup in the arteries, known as atherosclerosis.

To reduce the risk of CAD, people should avoid exposure to secondhand smoke. If relevant, they can also stop smoking themselves.

For support, people can talk with a healthcare professional or smoking cessation service about ways to quit. Options such as behavioral programs, nicotine replacement therapy, and medications may help.

Drinking alcohol can increase blood pressure and triglyceride levels, both of which are risk factors for CAD.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that males limit their alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks per day and females to one per day in order to prevent heart disease.

However, it is worth noting that a 2023 study found an association between alcohol and an increase in blood pressure with any amount of alcohol. There appears to be a dose-dependent relationship, meaning the more a person drinks, the more blood pressure increases.

Learn more about how alcohol affects heart health.

A diet high in refined sugar, trans fats, sweetened beverages, and red or processed meats has associations with CAD. Saturated fat is also connected to CAD, although its significance is less clear.

Eating a heart-healthy diet can lower the risk of heart disease. It can also help address other underlying conditions that contribute to CAD, such as diabetes, obesity, and high cholesterol.

Diet recommendations generally involve limiting sugar, trans fats, saturated fats, and salt. There are also a few specific food plans that aim to preserve heart health.

For example, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet focuses on:

  • whole grains, vegetables, and fruits
  • lean fish and poultry
  • beans, nuts, and pulses
  • low or nonfat dairy
  • unsaturated fats
  • limiting fatty meats and full-fat dairy
  • limiting sugar-sweetened foods and beverages
  • limiting high sodium foods

The Mediterranean diet is a similar eating plan that can also benefit heart health. It prioritizes eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and fish.

Regular physical activity is important for heart health. Exercise can help address high cholesterol, blood pressure, or blood sugar levels and aid in weight management.

In people with CAD, exercise can also reduce the rate of cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks and stroke.

The CDC recommends getting 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week. Examples of moderate-intensity activities include brisk walking, cycling, and swimming.

However, a 2018 review of previous research suggests that overall cardiovascular fitness as a result of vigorous activity may be more important than the duration of the exercise.

One of the major causes of CAD is underlying conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels, such as:

  • High blood pressure: Around 1 in 3 people with CAD have high blood pressure.
  • Hyperlipidemia: After hypertension, the second biggest risk factor for ischemic heart disease is hyperlipidemia. This is when a person has a high amount of fats, such as cholesterol and triglycerides, in their bloodstream.
  • Diabetes: The leading cause of death for people with diabetes is CVD.
  • Obesity: Obesity is a risk factor for CAD and also makes a person more likely to develop the other risk factors listed above.

Following the prevention steps in this article for reducing CAD risk can also reduce the likelihood of these conditions, too. However, these conditions can affect anyone. Also, some, such as high blood pressure, may not cause any noticeable symptoms.

For this reason, it is important to have regular health check-ups with a doctor. People can discuss with a doctor whether at-home blood pressure or sugar monitors could help with monitoring their health.

If someone has an underlying condition that puts them at risk for CAD, they should consult a doctor about the best treatment options for them.

While CAD is serious, it is often preventable. A person can help prevent CAD by addressing the risk factors they may be able to change, such as smoking, an imbalanced diet, and a lack of exercise.

Even among people who do not smoke, it is important to avoid exposure to secondhand smoke. Reducing alcohol consumption, stress, and salt intake may also help.

Monitoring and managing conditions that raise the risk of CAD, such as high blood pressure, is a key part of CAD prevention. People who have concerns about their cardiovascular health can speak with a doctor for advice and treatment options.