What Is Heart Disease?
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. There are many different types of heart disease—some are congenital (people are born with them), while a majority of heart diseases develop over the course of time and affect people later in life.
Heart and blood vessel diseases are often referred to as silent
killers because they usually develop over time and can go
unnoticed. Many heart problems develop when the arteries, which
supply the heart with blood, slowly clog with cells, fat, and
cholesterol—a substance known as plaque. This build-up of plaque along the inner
walls of the arteries can cause blood
clots, or thrombi, to form, leading to further narrowing or blockage of the artery. This condition is known
This article provides an overview of the following:
General Symptoms of Heart Disease
In people with heart disease, physical activity, emotional stress, and even eating can sometimes bring on symptoms. Blockages in the arteries of the heart often cause symptoms such as chest pressure, heaviness, tightness, or a squeezing sensation. Sometimes these sensations are mistaken for gas or indigestion. Symptoms of lack of oxygen to the heart are often experienced as pain in the neck, the back, the left arm, the throat, ears, jaws, or stomach. Some people experience symptoms in only one area, and not in the chest area at all.
Easy fatigue and breathlessness during activities may also be indicative of heart disease, as can difficulty breathing when lying flat, swelling of the ankles, and palpitations (strong and fast heart beats) accompanied by dizziness and other symptoms.
Common Types of Heart Diseases and Conditions
Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)
Blockage in the coronary arteries is called coronary artery disease—a condition in which the heart muscle doesn't get enough blood and oxygen to meet the demand.
Risk factors for coronary heart disease include:
Forms of CAD
Coronary artery disease can take the following forms:
Silent ischemia is a form of CAD in which the blood flow to the heart muscle is reduced but produces very little pain or symptoms. Women, older adults, and people with diabetes may be more likely to have few or even no symptoms of heart disease.
Angina refers to pain or pressure in the chest, back, arm, or jaw—usually associated with exertion—which indicates that the heart muscle isn't receiving enough oxygen. Angina may be caused by a narrowing of the arteries or muscle spasms in the coronary arteries. Angina caused by spasms is called variant angina and it may be induced by cigarette smoke, cold temperatures, strong emotions, and other sources.
It is important to note that angina—which consists of brief symptoms that resolve in a few minutes—is not a heart
attack. However, new angina or a worsening pattern of angina puts someone at increased risk of having a heart attack or
Heart Attack (Myocardial Infarction)
A heart attack occurs when blood flow to part of the heart is blocked and part of the heart muscle is damaged and dies as a result. There are now treatments that, if given in the first hours of a heart attack, can open up blocked arteries and limit the damage done to the heart muscle. In addition, during a heart attack, a person is at high risk of an
Some people may have few or no symptoms, but in general, the more warning signs and symptoms you have, the more likely it is that you are having a heart attack. Signs and symptoms include:
- Heavy feeling, pressure, or intense pain or squeezing in the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes
- Pain that radiates to the shoulders, neck, or arms
- Lightheadedness or fainting
- Shortness of breath
- Nausea or vomiting
Heart failure occurs when the heart isn't pumping as well as it
should. As a result, the body doesn't get all the blood and oxygen
it needs. Heart failure can be caused by coronary artery disease,
heart attack, high blood pressure, diabetes, diseases of the heart
If you have the following symptoms of heart failure, see your doctor:
- Swelling in the feet, ankles, or legs, known as edema
- Shortness of breath on exertion, caused by fluid that builds up in the lungs, known as pulmonary congestion
Other symptoms of heart failure may include wheezing, shortness of breath when sleeping flat, cough, and fatigue.
Diagnosis of Heart Disease
The diagnosis of heart disease is often complicated. The following tests are often used to help make a diagnosis:
Treatment of Heart Disease
Treatment of heart disease depends on the type of disease as well as many additional factors. Coronary artery disease is treated with:
- Medications—These may include: aspirin
Prevention of Heart Disease
Research has identified certain risk factors that make people more prone to heart disease. While some risk factors can't be controlled, such as being male or having a family history of heart disease, those related to lifestyle can be controlled and may provide significant long-term benefits. Further, risk factors often overlap. By making changes in one area of your life, such as becoming more physically active, you may decrease your cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
The following steps can help reduce the risk of certain heart diseases:
- Lowering the cholesterol level in your blood through dietary changes
American Heart Association
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Physical Activity for Everyone (CDC)
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
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Last reviewed January 2009 by
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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