03/22/2012 06:17 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2012

Atherosclerotic Heart Disease, Whitney Houston's Condition, Explained

A coroner's report released today shows that Whitney Houston's official cause of death is accidental drowning, with cocaine use and heart disease listed as contributing factors, according to news reports.

ABC News reported that while drowning was Houston's main cause of death, it was aggravated by atherosclerotic heart disease.

MSNBC reported that ongoing cocaine use can actually make heart problems worse.

“Cocaine, like other stimulants, can exacerbate pre-existing heart disease, such as coronary artery disease or hypertension," San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office spokeswoman Sarah Gordon told MSNBC. "In the presence of these pre-existing diseases, cocaine can cause heart failure, heart attack or sudden death."

Atherosclerotic heart disease occurs when the arteries going to the heart and other organs are hardened because of plaque build-up within the arteries. Atherosclerosis can lead to stroke, heart attack and death, the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute explains.

Atherosclerosis can develop into coronary heart disease, which is the No. 1 killer of American men and women, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Chronic kidney disease, peripheral arterial disease and carotid artery disease are other conditions that can be caused by atherosclerosis.

Symptoms of atherosclerosis can be hard to spot, since mild atherosclerosis typically doesn't have any signs, the Mayo Clinic reported. However, if the arteries are seriously clogged and hardened, the blood clot that forms in the artery can break, thereby leading to a heart attack or stroke.

When you have more serious atherosclerosis, you may experience heart attack-like pain if the hardening is in the arteries leading to the heart. If the atherosclerosis is in the arteries leading to the brain, you may feel sudden arm or leg numbness, or drooping facial muscles, the Mayo Clinic reported. Atherosclerosis in the arms and legs can manifest as pain while walking.

Getting a physical exam from a doctor could help alert him or her to potential signs of atherosclerosis. The condition can then be diagnosed with blood tests, ultrasounds, stress tests and electrocardiograms, the Mayo Clinic reported. Treatments include taking medications, or having a procedure -- like angioplasty (where a stent is inserted to open the artery) or bypass surgery.

But the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute noted that lifestyle changes are the main way to stop atherosclerosis (though, of course, some people may need the drugs or procedures, depending on advice from a medical professional). These lifestyle changes include losing weight, stopping smoking, exercising and eating right. However, some risk factors can't be changed -- like age, or having a family history of the condition.

Past celebrities who've died from atherosclerosis-related heart disease include Tim Russert, of TV news fame, who died in 2008 of a heart attack brought on by his atherosclerosis at age 58; and Chris Farley, a comedian, who died in 1997 of from accidental overdose of cocaine and morphine, though CNN reported that coronary atherosclerosis was a contributing factor.