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Complications of Heart Disease


Heart disease is an umbrella term, meaning it describes many conditions that affect a person’s heart health. Heart disease describes conditions that affect a person’s heart muscle, heart valves, coronary arteries, or heart rhythm. Each of these components plays an important part in a person’s overall heart health. When a person learns they have heart disease, it’s important for them to make lifestyle changes to slow the progression of the disease. Heart disease can cause many potentially fatal complications if left untreated. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1 in 4 deaths in the United States is due to heart disease.

Heart failure

Heart failure occurs when the heart cannot adequately pump blood throughout the body. The heart muscle is very strong. However, over time, the muscle can be affected and have trouble doing its job. The heart starts to compensate by beating faster, building up more muscle, or stretching to accommodate more blood. Over time, these methods of compensating can affect the heart’s function and result in heart failure. This can cause shortness of breath, dizziness, confusion, and the buildup of fluid in the body, causing swelling.

Heart attack

A heart attack occurs when the coronary arteries narrow so much that they cut off blood supply to the heart. Often, this is the result of cholesterol buildup in the arteries called atherosclerosis. A piece of the cholesterol breaks off and can block the blood vessel. The heart cells begin to die as they’re deprived of oxygen. Symptoms include shortness of breath and severe chest pain that may radiate to the back, jaw, or left arm. However, women may experience different symptoms associated with heart attack and heart disease, which are discussed below.


When the heart isn’t working effectively, blood clots are more likely to form in the blood vessels. A stroke occurs when one of these clots lodges in a blood vessel in the brain and cuts off blood flow. This is called an ischemic stroke. Ischemic stroke symptoms include:

  • numbness on one side of the body
  • confusion
  • trouble speaking
  • loss of balance or coordination

If a person doesn’t seek treatment quickly enough, too many brain cells may die in important areas of the brain that control speech, strength, memory, and more. If a person does live through the stroke, these elements of brain function may never return or may take time and rehabilitation to recover.

Pulmonary embolism

A pulmonary embolism is similar to a stroke, but the blocked blood vessel is in the lungs instead of the brain. Symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pain on breathing, and bluish skin. Because the body is quickly deprived of oxygen, a pulmonary embolism can turn deadly and is an emergency.

Cardiac arrest

Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating. It’s usually caused by an electrical disturbance in the heart. Arrhythmias caused by heart disease can lead to cardiac arrest. This will lead to death if not treated immediately.

Peripheral artery disease (PAD)

The same narrowing that occurs in coronary artery disease can happen in the arteries that supply blood to the arms and legs. The main symptom of PAD is severe leg pain when walking.

Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is a heart condition that is rarely deadly. It causes the upper chambers of the heart to beat irregularly or "quiver" instead of beating strongly. This can cause a person to experience an irregular heartbeat and a feeling of fluttering in their chest. Having AFib can increase your risk of having a stroke or heart failure. Because the chambers beat irregularly, blood can easily stall in the chambers and create clots.


Angina is the medical term for chest pain. This occurs when the heart muscle doesn’t get enough oxygen. The result is a feeling of squeezing or pressure in the chest. Different types of angina exist. The most common types are stable and unstable angina. Stable angina is also known as angina with physical exertion. Because exercise and exertion increases the body’s requirements for oxygen, the heart muscle can suffer. Unstable angina is a more concerning symptom because it is chest pain that occurs unrelated to exertion.

Angina is more of a symptom than a condition. It’s a symptom of an underlying heart condition, which is most commonly heart disease.

Gender-specific symptoms

Women and men can have different symptoms related to their heart disease because they are more likely to have different parts of the heart affected. For example, women most commonly develop heart disease in the smaller arteries that branch off the heart’s major or coronary arteries. As a result, women may experience different symptoms related to their heart disease, including nausea, shortness of breath, vomiting, or stomach pain.

Men are more likely to experience heart disease that affects or blocks the major coronary arteries. This can cause the symptoms that people more commonly associate with heart disease, such as crushing chest pain, tightness, or pressure in the chest, particularly with stress or physical activity.

Short-term complications

Heart disease can greatly affect a person’s quality of life. If a person experiences angina, they may be afraid to exert themselves for fear of chest pain or other uncomfortable symptoms. Those with heart failure can develop swelling, dizziness, and other symptoms that can affect their ability to complete daily tasks. A person with diagnosed heart disease must also live with the stress of knowing they have a long-term illness that could result in a cardiac event, such as heart attack or stroke.

Long-term outlook and potential complications

The long-term outlook for people with heart disease depends upon many factors. These include the type of underlying heart disease, the person’s reaction to the medications, and the extent and severity of impairment. If a doctor diagnoses you or a loved one with heart disease, a medication and healthy lifestyle regimen should be followed to prevent worsening complications.

Heart disease is considered a chronic condition, and there can be complications following periods of medication-induced improvement. However, heart disease remains the leading cause of death for both men and women, according to the CDC. Seeking treatment after the earliest possible indicators of heart problems, such as high blood pressure or shortness of breath, can result in better outcomes.

Content licensed from:

Written by: the Healthline Editorial Team
Medically reviewed on: May 24, 2017: Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, RN, CNE, COI

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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