Here’s the big news, folks: Coronary artery disease (CAD), the most common type of heart disease, is reversible. Not just treatable. Not just manageable. Reversible. But to understand what you can do to reverse your disease, you need to know why it occurred in the first place.

CAD, also known as atherosclerosis, is the blockage of arteries by fatty deposits called plaque. Plaque forms when a particular type of cholesterol in the blood — LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, that “bad” cholesterol you often hear about — accumulates on the lining of your arteries. The arteries narrow and harden, making it difficult for blood to pass through and carry oxygen to the heart and other organs. The condition can lead to chest pains (angina), heart attack, stroke or heart failure. Most heart attacks occur when the plaque on the artery ruptures and a clot then forms, stopping blood flow.

In a groundbreaking study, Steven Nissen, MD, chief of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, showed that plaque buildup can be reversed by bringing down LDL to a very low level. The study used a class of drugs known as statins to achieve the necessary reductions. But, Dr. Nissen says, “we get the best results when we combine the best lifestyle with the best drugs,” and some people can lower LDL through diet and diet and exercise alone.

QUIZ: Are You Getting Enough Exercise?

Wow Fact

Women who followed a Mediterranean-style diet were 29 percent less likely to have a heart attack and 13 percent less likely to suffer a stroke than those following the typical American diet, according to a new analysis of the Nurses’ Health Study, one of the largest and longest-running investigations of factors that promote good health.

Healthy eating and exercise have other important benefits for the heart. They can help stop the plaque-making cycle by reducing inflammation. They increase insulin sensitivity (your body’s ability to use the hormone insulin to change glucose into energy; insulin resistance, a well-known factor in diabetes, has also been associated with CAD). And heart-healthy eating can stabilize the plaque earlier, to keep you from developing a serious heart condition. 

Healthy eating and physical activity also help you lose weight, keep it off and lower your blood pressure — all of which can cut your risk of a heart attack. And if all that’s not enough, here’s another bonus: The lifestyle changes that make you healthier may also make you happier.