Heart Disease

Everything You Need to Know About Heart Disease

Everything You Need to Know About Heart Disease

Heart disease refers to any condition affecting the heart. There are many types, some of which are preventable. Unlike cardiovascular disease, which includes problems with the entire circulatory system, heart disease affects only the heart.

In this article, learn more about the types, causes, and symptoms of heart disease.


Who gets heart disease?

Heart disease doesn’t discriminate. It’s the leading cause of death for several populations, including white people, Hispanics, and Black people. Almost half of Americans are at risk for heart disease, and the numbers are rising.

While heart disease can be deadly, it’s also preventable in most people. By adopting healthy lifestyle habits early, you can potentially live longer with a healthier heart.



There are several different types of heart disease, and they affect the heart in different ways.

The sections below will look at some different types of heart disease in more detail.


Coronary artery disease

Coronary artery disease, also known as coronary heart disease, is the most common type of heart disease.

It develops when the arteries that supply blood to the heart become clogged with plaque. This causes them to harden and narrow. Plaque contains cholesterol and other substances.

As a result, the blood supply reduces, and the heart receives less oxygen and fewer nutrients. In time, the heart muscle weakens, and there is a risk of heart failure and arrhythmias.

When plaque builds up in the arteries, this is called atherosclerosis.


Congenital heart defects

A person with a congenital heart defect is born with a heart problem. There are many types of congenital heart defect, including:

  • Abnormal heart valves: Valves may not open properly or may leak blood.
  • Septal defects: There is a hole in the wall between either the lower chambers or the upper chambers of the heart.
  • Atresia: One of the heart valves is missing.

Congenital heart disease can involve major structural issues, such as the absence of a ventricle and problems with the main arteries that leave the heart.

Many congenital heart problems do not cause any noticeable symptoms and only become apparent during a routine medical check.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), heart murmurs often affect children, but only some are due to a defect.



Arrhythmia refers to an irregular heartbeat. It occurs when the electrical impulses that coordinate the heartbeat do not work properly. As a result, the heart may beat too fast, too slowly, or erratically.

There are various types of arrhythmia, including:

  • Tachycardia: This refers to a rapid heartbeat.
  • Bradycardia: This refers to a slow heartbeat.
  • Premature contractions: This refers to an early heartbeat.
  • Atrial fibrillation: This is a type of irregular heartbeat.

A person may notice a feeling like a fluttering or a racing heart.

Brief changes in heart rhythm are not a cause for concern, but treatment will be necessary if they persist, as this can affect the heart’s function.

In some cases, arrhythmias can even be life threatening.


Dilated cardiomyopathy

In dilated cardiomyopathy, the heart chambers become dilated, meaning that the heart muscle stretches and becomes thinner. The most common causes of dilated cardiomyopathy are prior heart attacks, arrhythmias, and toxins.

As a result, the heart becomes weaker and cannot pump blood properly. It can result in arrhythmia, blood clots in the heart, and heart failure.

It usually affects people aged 20–60 years, according to the AHA.


Myocardial infarction

Also known as heart attack, myocardial infarction involves an interruption of the blood flow to the heart. This can damage or destroy part of the heart muscle.

The most common cause of heart attack is plaque, a blood clot, or both in a coronary artery. It can also occur if an artery suddenly narrows or spasms.


Heart failure

When a person has heart failure, the heart is still working but not as well as it should. Congestive heart failure is a type of heart failure.

Heart failure can result from untreated coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, arrhythmias, and other conditions. These conditions can affect the heart’s ability to pump properly.

Heart failure can be life threatening, but seeking early treatment for heart-related conditions can help prevent complications.


Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy

This condition usually develops when a genetic problem affects the heart muscle. It tends to be an inherited condition.

The walls of the muscle thicken, and contractions become harder. This affects the heart’s ability to take in and pump out blood. In some cases, an obstruction can occur.

There may be no symptoms, and many people do not receive a diagnosis. However, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy can worsen over time and lead to various heart problems.

Anyone with a family history of this condition should ask for screening, as receiving treatment can help prevent complications.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is the main cause of cardiac death among athletes and people aged under 35 years, according to the AHA.


Mitral valve regurgitation

This event occurs when the mitral valve in the heart does not close tightly enough and allows blood to flow back into the heart.

As a result, blood cannot move through the heart or the body efficiently, and it can put pressure on the veins leading from the lungs to the heart. In time, the heart can become enlarged, and heart failure can result.


Mitral valve prolapse

This happens when the valve flaps of the mitral valve do not close properly. Instead, they bulge into the left atrium. This can cause a heart murmur.

Mitral valve prolapse is not usually life threatening, but some people may need treatment.

Genetic factors and connective tissue problems can cause this condition, which affects around 2% of the population.


Aortic stenosis

In aortic stenosis, the pulmonary valve is thick or fused and does not open properly. This makes it hard for the heart to pump blood from the right ventricle into the pulmonary artery.

In aortic stenosis, the aortic valve opening is too narrow, restricting blood flow from the left ventricle to the aorta. It can also impact the pressure in the left atrium.

A person may be born with it, or it may develop over time due to calcium deposits or scarring.


What are the symptoms of heart disease?

Different types of heart disease may result in a variety of different symptoms.


Arrhythmias are abnormal heart rhythms. The symptoms you experience may depend on the type of arrhythmia you have — heartbeats that are too fast or too slow. Symptoms of an arrhythmia include:

  • lightheadedness
  • fluttering heart or racing heartbeat
  • slow pulse
  • fainting spells
  • dizziness
  • chest pain


Atherosclerosis reduces blood supply to your extremities. In addition to chest pain and shortness of breath, symptoms of atherosclerosis include:

  • coldness, especially in the limbs
  • numbness, especially in the limbs
  • unusual or unexplained pain
  • weakness in your legs and arms

Congenital heart defects

Congenital heart defects are heart problems that develop when a fetus is growing. Some heart defects are never diagnosed. Others may be found when they cause symptoms, such as:

  • blue-tinged skin
  • swelling of the extremities
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • fatigue and low energy
  • irregular heart rhythm

Coronary artery disease (CAD)

CAD is plaque buildup in the arteries that move oxygen-rich blood through the heart and lungs. Symptoms of CAD include:

  • chest pain or discomfort
  • a feeling of pressure or squeezing in the chest
  • shortness of breath
  • nausea
  • feelings of indigestion or gas


Cardiomyopathy is a disease that causes the muscles of the heart to grow larger and turn rigid, thick, or weak. Symptoms of this condition include:

  • fatigue
  • bloating
  • swollen legs, especially ankles and feet
  • shortness of breath
  • pounding or rapid pulse

Heart infections

The term heart infection may be used to describe conditions such as endocarditis or myocarditis. Symptoms of a heart infection include:

  • chest pain
  • chest congestion or coughing
  • fever
  • chills
  • skin rash

What are the symptoms of heart disease in women?

Women often experience different signs and symptoms of heart disease than men, specifically with regards to CAD and other cardiovascular diseases.

In fact, a 2003 study looked at the symptoms most often seen in women who’d experienced a heart attack. The top symptoms didn’t include “classic” heart attack symptoms such as chest pain and tingling. Instead, the study reported that women were more likely to say they experienced anxiety, sleep disturbances, and unusual or unexplained fatigue.

What’s more, 80 percent of the women in the study reported experiencing these symptoms for at least one month before their heart attack occurred.

Symptoms of heart disease in women can also be confused with other conditions, such as depressionmenopause, and anxiety.

Common heart disease symptoms in women include:

  • dizziness
  • paleness
  • shortness of breath or shallow breathing
  • lightheadedness
  • fainting or passing out
  • anxiety
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • jaw pain
  • neck pain
  • back pain
  • indigestion or gaslike pain in the chest and stomach
  • cold sweats

What causes heart disease?

Heart disease is a collection of diseases and conditions that cause cardiovascular problems. Each type of heart disease is caused by something entirely unique to that condition. Atherosclerosis and CAD result from plaque buildup in the arteries. Other causes of heart disease are described below.

Arrhythmia causes

Causes of an abnormal heart rhythm include:

  • diabetes
  • CAD
  • heart defects, including congenital heart defects
  • medications, supplements, and herbal remedies
  • high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • excessive alcohol or caffeine use
  • substance use disorders
  • stress and anxiety
  • existing heart damage or disease

Congenital heart defect causes

This heart disease occurs while a baby is still developing in the womb. Some heart defects may be serious and diagnosed and treated early. Some may also go undiagnosed for many years.

Your heart’s structure can also change as you age. This can create a heart defect that may lead to complications and problems.

Cardiomyopathy causes

Several types of cardiomyopathy exist. Each type is the result of a separate condition.

  • Dilated cardiomyopathy. It’s unclear what causes this most common type of cardiomyopathy, which leads to a weakened heart. It may be the result of previous damage to the heart, such as the kind caused by drugs, infections, and heart attack. It may also be an inherited condition or the result of uncontrolled blood pressure.
  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This type of heart disease leads to a thicker heart muscle. It’s usually inherited.
  • Restrictive cardiomyopathy. It’s often unclear what leads to this type of cardiomyopathy, which results in rigid heart walls. Possible causes may include scar tissue buildup and a type of abnormal protein buildup known as amyloidosis.

Heart infection causes

Bacteria, parasites, and viruses are the most common causes of heart infections. Uncontrolled infections in the body can also harm the heart if they’re not properly treated.

What are some risk factors for heart disease?

There are many risk factors for heart disease. Some are controllable, and others aren’t. The CDC says that around 47 percent of Americans have at least one risk factor for heart disease. Some of these risk factors include:

  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol and low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the “good” cholesterol
  • smoking
  • obesity
  • physical inactivity

Smoking, for example, is a controllable risk factor. People who smoke double their risk of developing heart disease, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).

People with diabetes may also be at higher risk for heart disease because high blood glucose levels increase the risk of:

  • angina
  • heart attack
  • stroke
  • CAD

If you have diabetes, it’s essential to control your glucose to limit your risk for developing heart disease. The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that people who have both high blood pressure and diabetes double their risk for cardiovascular disease.

Risk factors you can’t control

Other risk factors for heart disease include:

  • family history
  • ethnicity
  • sex
  • age

Although these risk factors aren’t controllable, you may be able to monitor their effects. A family history of CAD is especially concerning if it involved a:

  • male relative under 55 years old, such as a father or brother
  • female relative under 65 years old, such as a mother or sister

Heart attack can lead to cardiac arrest, which is when the heart stops and the body can no longer function. A person needs immediate medical attention if they have any symptoms of heart attack.

If cardiac arrest occurs, the person will need:

  • immediate medical help (call 911)
  • immediate cardiopulmonary resuscitation
  • a shock from an automated external defibrillator, if available



Heart disease develops when there is:

  • damage to all or part of the heart
  • a problem with the blood vessels leading to or from the heart
  • a low supply of oxygen and nutrients to the heart

In some cases, there is a genetic cause. However, some lifestyle factors and medical conditions can also increase the risk. These include:

  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • smoking
  • a high intake of alcohol
  • overweight and obesity
  • diabetes
  • a family history of heart disease
  • dietary choices
  • age
  • a history of preeclampsia during pregnancy
  • low activity levels
  • high stress and anxiety levels

The World Health Organization (WHO) mention poverty and stress as two key factors contributing to a global increase in heart and cardiovascular disease.



The treatment options will vary depending on the type of heart disease a person has, but some common strategies include making lifestyle changes, taking medications, and undergoing surgery.

The following sections will look at some of these options in more detail.



Various medications can help treat heart conditions. The main options include:

  • Anticoagulants: Also known as blood thinners, these medications can prevent clots. They include warfarin (Coumadin).
  • Antiplatelet therapies: These include aspirin, and they can also prevent clots.
  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors: These can help treat heart failure and high blood pressure by causing the blood vessels to expand. Benazepril (Lotensin) is one example.
  • Angiotensin II receptor blockers: These can also control blood pressure. Valsartan (Diovan) is one example.
  • Angiotensin receptor neprilysin inhibitors: These can help open up narrowed arteries to treat heart failure.
  • Beta-blockers: Atenolol (Tenormin) and other medications in this class can reduce the heart rate and lower blood pressure. They can also treat arrhythmias and angina.
  • Calcium channel blockers: These can lower blood pressure and prevent arrhythmias by reducing the pumping strength of the heart and relaxing the blood vessels. One example is diltiazem (Cardizem).
  • Cholesterol-lowering medications: Statins, such as atorvastatin (Lipitor), and other types of drug can help reduce levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol in the body.
  • Digitalis: Preparations such as digoxin (Lanoxin) can increase the strength of the heart’s pumping action. They can also help treat heart failure and arrhythmias.
  • Diuretics: These medications can reduce the heart’s workload, lower blood pressure, and remove excess water from the body. Furosemide (Lasix) is one example.
  • Vasodilators: These are medications to lower blood pressure. They do this by relaxing the blood vessels. Nitroglycerin (Nitro Stat) is one example. They can also help ease chest pain.

A doctor will work with the individual to find a suitable option.

Sometimes, side effects occur. If this is the case, it may be necessary to review the medication regimen.


Undergoing heart surgery can help treat blockages and heart problems when medications are not effective.

Some common types of surgery include:

  • Coronary artery bypass surgery: This allows blood flow to reach a part of the heart when an artery is blocked. Coronary artery bypass grafting is the most common surgery. A surgeon can use a healthy blood vessel from another part of the body to repair a blocked one.
  • Valve replacement or repair: A surgeon can replace or repair a valve that is not functioning properly.
  • Repair surgery: A surgeon can repair congenital heart defects, aneurysms, and other problems.
  • Device implantation: Pacemakers, balloon catheters, and other devices can help regulate the heartbeat and support blood flow.
  • Laser treatment: Transmyocardial laser revascularization can help treat angina.
  • Maze surgery: A surgeon can create new paths for electrical signals to pass through. This can help treat atrial fibrillation.

Heart transplants are another option. However, it can be hard to find a suitable donor at the right time.


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