Understanding Heart Disease
On This Page
Heart Disease Can Be Serious
If you are like most people, you take a healthy heart for granted… until you experience symptoms, or your physician detects evidence that something is not quite right with your heart’s function. Based on the latest statistics provided by the American Heart Association, nearly half of U.S. adults have some form of cardiovascular disease. Although deaths as a result of heart disease are on the decline — mostly due to improvements in diagnosis and treatment — heart disease doesn’t play favorites. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease continues to be the leading cause of mortality in the U.S. for men and women of most racial and ethnic groups.
Keeping Your Heart Healthy
Heart disease is preventable. By following a healthy lifestyle (best started at a young age, but it’s never too late), you can get a head start on preventing heart disease. By changing harmful behaviors and taking medications as prescribed by your physician, you can reduce the threats posed by high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Should heart disease progress, Cardiac Partners is here to provide a diagnosis, prescribe medications, and offer procedures or devices to best manage your condition.
Although heredity is a factor in determining whether you are at risk for heart disease, by maintaining a healthier heart, you can potentially live longer and feel better. Start with regular checkups with your primary care physician and see us at Cardiac Partners if you have concerns about your heart health.
To maintain a healthy heart, pay attention to what your body tells you, and adopt healthy lifestyle habits, such as:
- Staying physically active and exercising regularly
- Eating a healthy diet that is low in saturated fat, trans fat, and salt
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Lowering and controlling your blood pressure
- Avoiding smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke
- Drinking only in moderation
- Monitoring and controlling your blood sugar if you have diabetes
- Lowering and controlling your cholesterol level
What is Heart Disease?
What we call heart disease isn’t a single disease or ailment. Rather, it is one of several conditions that affect your heart’s health. You may have also heard the term cardiovascular disease. Cardio refers to the heart itself — the muscle that pumps blood through your vascular system — blood vessels, arteries, and veins.
Together, your heart and blood vessels form your circulatory system. Because this system is interconnected, anything that affects one part can have an impact on the other parts. So, if you have arteriosclerosis — hardening of the arteries caused by fatty buildup — your heart must work harder to pump blood and your blood pressure will likely be elevated.
Many conditions affect the heart muscle, valves, and arteries, and the sac that surrounds the heart. Each part plays an important role. The heart muscle pumps blood through your arteries; valves ensure that oxygen-rich blood moves into your arteries and oxygen-depleted blood is returned to the lungs to be replenished. Coronary arteries supply blood to the heart muscle. Your heart is protected by a surrounding sac. This system is highly efficient and effective. However, with heart disease, the system doesn’t function properly because of a problem with one or more components. Left untreated, this condition can lead to a serious and possibly even life-threatening heart event.
Here are the some of the more common diseases and conditions that affect the heart and the associated symptoms. Many diseases that affect the heart share common symptoms, such as chest pain, fatigue, and shortness of breath.
Arrythmia occurs when your heart beats too fast, too slow, or irregularly. Problems with heart rhythm occur when the electrical impulses that coordinate your heartbeats aren’t working properly. Although there are many types of arrhythmias, the most common type of arrythmia is atrial fibrillation, commonly called A-Fib. Some people who have arrhythmias, including A-Fib, experience no symptoms. However, A-Fib can be associated with serious complications, such as stroke.
Arrhythmias are defined by where they occur. Those that begin in the lower chambers of your heart (ventricles) are called ventricular. Those that begin in the atria, or upper chambers, are called supraventricular. Doctors also group arrhythmias by how they affect your resting heart rate. A heart rate of fewer than 60 beats per minute is called bradycardia. A heart rate of more than 100 beats per minute is called tachycardia.
Common symptoms of arrhythmia:
- Racing heartbeat, known as tachycardia
- Slow heartbeat, known as bradycardia
- A sensation of fluttering in your chest
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Light-headedness or dizziness
- Fainting or near-fainting
Conditions that affect the heart’s muscle are included in the term cardiomyopathy. Cardiomyopathy affects the heart’s ability to pump blood efficiently. In some cases, the heart rhythm also becomes disturbed. The exact causes may not always be well understood. Some patients have a genetic predisposition to these conditions.
Cardiomyopathy can occur in young people. This condition tends to be progressive and can worsen quickly. It may be associated with diseases involving other organs, as well as the heart.
Common symptoms of cardiomyopathy:
- Shortness of breath
- Trouble breathing, especially with physical exertion
- Swelling in your ankles, feet, legs, or abdomen, or the veins in your neck
Some patients do not have any symptoms of cardiomyopathy, or symptoms may not become apparent until the disease progresses.
Congenital Heart Disease
Congenital heart disease is a general term for a range of birth defects that affect the normal way the heart works. The term congenital means that the condition is present from birth. Congenital heart defects are some of the most common types of birth defects.
Congenital defects may range from mild to severe. Some, such as small holes in the heart, improve on their own. Others are quite serious and require surgical procedures to repair the defect.
Common symptoms of congenital heart disease:
- Pale gray or blue skin
- Swelling in the legs and/or abdomen
- Swelling around the eyes
- Shortness of breath during feedings in an infant, resulting in poor weight gain
Coronary Heart Disease, Also Called Coronary Artery Disease
This term is used to describe coronary artery diseases and their symptoms and complications. For people with coronary heart disease, the blood flow into the arteries that supply the heart is blocked. Most often, this blockage is the result of a buildup of fatty deposits, called plaque, inside the coronary artery walls. These deposits cause the walls to thicken and stiffen, and the resulting condition is referred to as atherosclerosis. Coronary heart disease can be serious, and if left untreated, fatal. A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, is a serious complication of coronary heart disease and the leading individual cause of death in the U.S.
Common symptoms of coronary heart disease:
- Chest pain or discomfort, known as angina
- A feeling of heaviness, as if someone is squeezing your heart, which may be felt under your breastbone and in your neck, arms, stomach, or upper back and most often occurs with activity or emotion
- Shortness of breath with activity
- General weakness
Symptoms may not be very noticeable — you can have the disease without any clear symptoms that something is wrong. This is more likely in the early stages of coronary heart disease.
Heart Failure, Also Called Congestive Heart Failure
Heart failure is a serious condition characterized by the heart’s inability to pump blood as efficiently as it should. The name can be misleading. It doesn’t mean that the heart has failed or will soon cease working. Over time, the heart muscle has simply become less able to contract. It can also indicate that there is a problem that limits the heart’s ability to fill with blood.
With this condition, your heart is unable to meet the body’s demand, and blood returns to the heart faster than it can be pumped out. The heart becomes backed up, or congested, leading to the name congestive heart failure. The result is that the rest of the body does not receive enough oxygen-rich blood. The lungs, brain, intestinal tract, and muscles can be affected.
To compensate, the heart beats faster. However, beating faster cannot make up for the heart’s inefficiency. Less blood circulates, and the extra exertion may result in heart palpitations. To make room for the accumulating blood, the heart may become enlarged. Shortness of breath may occur as the lungs fill with fluid. Heart failure often gets worse over time.
More than 5 million people in the U.S. have heart failure. It’s the most common diagnosis in hospitalized patients older than 65.
Common symptoms of heart failure:
In early stages of disease, you may experience flu-like symptoms such as body aches, fatigue, fever or chills, and loss of appetite. As heart failure progresses, you may experience more severe symptoms, such as:
- Belly pain, bloating, or uncomfortable fullness after eating
- Shortness of breath all the time or with exertion
- Coughing when lying down
- Sudden weight gain
- Swelling of the legs, ankles, or feet (edema)
The medical term for your heart muscle is the myocardium. Myocarditis occurs when the heart muscle becomes inflamed. When your body’s immune system responds to an infection, inflammation occurs. Myocarditis is rare, and when it does occur, it is most often caused by a viral infection. It can be caused by the same virus that causes the flu, the common cold, or COVID-19. Bacteria, fungi, or parasites can also cause myocarditis, as can autoimmune disorders. In severe cases of myocarditis, the heart muscle weakens and cannot pump blood effectively to other parts of your body.
Common symptoms of myocarditis:
- Signs of a viral infection, such as body aches, joint pain, fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, or a sore throat
- Arrhythmia, or a rapid or abnormal heart rate
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath, both at rest and during physical activity
- Swelling of your legs, ankles, and feet
The pericardium is a sac-like structure that surrounds the heart. Pericarditis results when this sac becomes inflamed or irritated. The most common symptom is chest pain, which occurs when the sac’s layers become inflamed and rub against the heart. There are several causes of pericarditis, including viral, bacterial, or fungal infection. Other possible causes of pericarditis include a heart attack, heart surgery, and injury.
Common symptoms of pericarditis:
- Sharp, stabbing chest pain, caused by the heart rubbing against the pericardium that may get worse when you cough, swallow, take a deep breath, or lie flat
- Pain in your back, neck, or left shoulder
- Trouble breathing when you lie down
- Dry cough
- Anxiety or fatigue
- Fever, chills, or sweating if the condition is caused by an infection
Valvular Heart Disease
The valves connect the four chambers of the heart to keep blood flowing properly. Some diseases affect the heart’s valves. These conditions can include leaking, narrowing, or improper closing. Some valvular diseases are genetic. Other valve issues can be caused by an illness, such as rheumatic fever. Infections, certain medications, and radiation to treat cancer can also affect heart valve function.
Common symptoms of valvular heart disease:
- Shortness of breath
- Irregular heartbeat
- Swollen feet or ankles
- Chest pain
Helping to Prevent Heart Disease
Many factors contribute to the likelihood that you will have heart disease. Some are controllable, and you can take steps to help lower your risk. Other factors — such as your age or family history — may be out of your control. However, by being aware of these factors, you may be better able to manage potential heart-related conditions.
Most importantly, you can take steps to lower your risk of heart disease by changing the factors that are under your control.
The CDC says that approximately 47% of Americans have at least one risk factor for heart disease. Some of these risk factors include:
- High blood pressure. The CDC estimates that about half of people with high blood pressure don’t have it under control. When left uncontrolled, high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. High blood pressure is often called a silent killer because it usually has no symptoms. The only way to know whether you have high blood pressure is to have it measured. Lifestyle changes and prescription medicine can help to lower your blood pressure.
- High cholesterol. Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made by the liver. It’s also found in certain foods. Although the liver makes enough for your body’s needs, many people take in more cholesterol from food. Besides what you eat, many factors can contribute to having high levels of cholesterol, including obesity, smoking, diabetes, and not getting enough physical activity.
- Smoking. Smoking damages blood vessels and can contribute to heart disease. Nicotine also raises blood pressure.
- Obesity. Extra weight puts stress on your whole body, but especially the heart.
- Lack of physical activity. Your heart and blood vessels are more likely to stay healthy if you are physically active. The CDC estimates that only 1 in 4 adults meets the recommended guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week.
- Poor eating habits. Americans often consume too much salt (sodium), which increases blood pressure. Also, if you consume foods high in trans fats and/or saturated fats, such as most fried foods, or if your diet is high in sugar, you increase your risk factor of heart disease.
- Alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease. It also increases levels of triglycerides, a fatty substance in the blood that can increase the risk of heart disease.
- Diabetes may also increase the risk of heart disease because high blood glucose levels increase the risk of angina and stroke.
Here are some risk factors you can’t control:
- Family history, especially a history of coronary heart disease.
- Ethnicity. Blacks have the highest rate of cardiovascular disease in the U.S., with about you 47% affected. Hispanic are also more likely than other ethnic groups to have heart disease.
- Gender. According to the CDC, between 70% and 89% of all cardiac events in the U.S. occur in men. However, the incidence of heart disease in women has been on the increase.
- Age. As you age, your heart becomes less elastic and less able to respond to changes in resistance (blood pressure). This increases the work your heart must perform to provide blood to your body’s organs.
While you can’t change your age, gender, ethnicity, or genetic makeup, you should be aware of the risks that are unique to you. By understanding your potential risks, seeing a cardiologist for regular heart check-ups, and adopting a healthy lifestyle, you will be on the path to maintaining a healthy heart.