Heart disease is a broad term used to describe a range of diseases that affect your heart. The various diseases that fall under the umbrella of heart disease include diseases of your blood vessels, such as coronary artery disease; heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias); heart infections; and heart defects you're born with (congenital heart defects).
The term "heart disease" is often used interchangeably with "cardiovascular disease." Cardiovascular disease generally refers to conditions that involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack, chest pain (angina) or stroke. Other heart conditions, such as infections and conditions that affect your heart's muscle, valves or beating rhythm, also are considered forms of heart disease.
Many forms of heart disease can be prevented or treated with healthy lifestyle choices.
Heart disease symptoms vary, depending on what type of heart disease you have.
Symptoms of heart disease in your blood vessels (cardiovascular disease)
You might not be diagnosed with cardiovascular disease until your condition worsens to the point that you have a heart attack, angina, stroke, or heart failure. It's important to watch for cardiovascular symptoms and discuss any concerns with your doctor. Cardiovascular disease can sometimes be found early with regular visits to your doctor.
Heart disease symptoms caused by abnormal heartbeats (heart arrhythmias)
Heart disease symptoms caused by heart defects
Less serious congenital heart defects are often not diagnosed until later in childhood or even during adulthood. Signs and symptoms of congenital heart defects that usually aren't immediately life-threatening include:
Heart disease symptoms caused by thick heart muscle (cardiomyopathy)
Heart disease symptoms caused by heart infections
Varying slightly with each type of infection, heart infection symptoms can include:
Heart disease symptoms caused by valvular heart disease
When to see a doctor
Heart disease is easier to treat when it's detected early, so talk to your doctor about any concerns you have about your heart health. If you don't have known heart disease but are concerned about developing heart disease, talk to your doctor about steps you can take to reduce your heart disease risk. This is especially important if you have a family history of heart disease.
If you think you may have heart disease, based on new signs or symptoms you've been having, make an appointment to see your doctor.
How the heart works
The right side of the heart, composed of the right atrium and ventricle, collects and pumps blood to the lungs through the pulmonary arteries. The lungs refresh the blood with a new supply of oxygen, making it turn red. Oxygen-rich blood then enters the left side of the heart, composed of the left atrium and ventricle, and is pumped through the aorta to supply tissues throughout the body with oxygen and nutrients.
Four valves within your heart keep your blood moving the right way. The tricuspid, mitral, pulmonary and aortic valves open only one way and only when pushed on. Each valve opens and closes once per heartbeat — or about once every second while you're at rest.
A beating heart contracts and relaxes. Contraction is called systole, and relaxation is called diastole. During systole, your ventricles contract, forcing blood into the vessels going to your lungs and body — much like ketchup being forced out of a squeeze bottle. The right ventricle contracts a little bit before the left ventricle does. Your ventricles then relax during diastole and are filled with blood coming from the upper chambers, the left and right atria. The cycle then starts over again.
Your heart also has electrical wiring, which keeps it beating. Electrical impulses begin high in the right atrium and travel through specialized pathways to the ventricles, delivering the signal to pump. The conduction system keeps your heart beating in a coordinated and normal rhythm, which in turn keeps blood circulating. The continuous exchange of oxygen-rich blood with oxygen-poor blood is what keeps you alive.
The causes of heart disease vary by type of heart disease.
Causes of cardiovascular disease
Over time, however, too much pressure in your arteries can make the walls thick and stiff — sometimes restricting blood flow to your organs and tissues. This process is called arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis is the most common form of this disorder. Atherosclerosis is also the most common cause of cardiovascular disease, and it's often caused by an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, being overweight and smoking. All of these are major risk factors for developing atherosclerosis and, in turn, cardiovascular disease.
Causes of heart arrhythmia
In a healthy person with a normal, healthy heart, it's unlikely for a fatal arrhythmia to develop without some outside trigger, such as an electrical shock or the use of illegal drugs. That's primarily because a healthy person's heart is free from any abnormal conditions that cause an arrhythmia, such as an area of scarred tissue.
However, in a heart that's diseased or deformed, the heart's electrical impulses may not properly start or travel through the heart, making arrhythmias more likely to develop.
Causes of heart defects
Heart defects can also develop in adults. As you age, your heart's structure can change, causing a heart defect.
Causes of cardiomyopathy
Causes of heart infection
Causes of valvular heart disease
Chambers and the valves of the heart
A normal heart has two upper and two lower chambers. The upper chambers, the right and left atria, receive incoming blood. The lower chambers, the more muscular right and left ventricles, pump blood ...
Development of atherosclerosis
If you have too many cholesterol particles in your blood, cholesterol may accumulate on your artery walls. Eventually, deposits called plaques may form. The deposits may narrow — or block &...
Heart disease risk factors include:
Complications of heart disease include:
Preparing for your appointment
Some types of heart disease will be discovered without an appointment — for example, if a child is born with serious heart defect, it will be detected soon after birth. In other cases, your heart disease may be diagnosed in an emergency situation, such as a heart attack.
If you think you may have heart disease or are worried about your heart disease risk because of a strong family history, make an appointment with your family doctor. If heart disease is found early, your treatment may be easier and more effective. Eventually, however, you may be referred to a heart specialist (cardiologist).
Because appointments can be brief and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important, in case time runs out. For heart disease, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
Tests and diagnosis
The tests you'll need to diagnose your heart disease depend on what condition your doctor thinks you might have. No matter what type of heart disease you have, your doctor will likely perform a physical exam and ask about your personal and family medical history before doing any tests. Tests to diagnose heart disease can include:
Treatments and drugs
Heart disease treatments vary. You may need lifestyle changes, medications, surgery or other medical procedures as part of your treatment.
Cardiovascular disease treatments
Heart arrhythmia treatments
Heart defect treatments
Treatments for cardiomyopathy
Heart infection treatments
If your heart infection is severe and damages your heart, you may need surgery to repair the damaged portion of your heart.
Valvular heart disease treatments
Lifestyle and home remedies
Heart disease can be improved — or even prevented — by making certain lifestyle changes. The following changes can help anyone who wants to improve his or her heart health:
In addition to healthy lifestyle changes, remember the importance of regular medical checkups. Early detection and treatment can set the stage for a lifetime of better heart health.
There are several alternative medicines that may be effective in lowering cholesterol and preventing some types of heart disease, including:
As with any alternative medicine, talk to your doctor before adding any new supplements to your treatment regimen. Even natural medicines and herbal supplements can interact with medications you're taking.
Coping and support
You may feel frustrated, upset or overwhelmed upon learning you or your loved one has heart disease. Fortunately, there are ways to help cope with heart disease or improve your condition. These include:
Certain types of heart disease, such as heart defects, can't be prevented. However, you can help prevent many other types of heart disease by making the same lifestyle changes that can improve your heart disease, such as:
Last Updated: 2011-01-12
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