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Heart Disease Overview and Types

Overview of basics of heart disease

Heart disease is a word used to describe many different conditions affecting the heart. Coronary heart disease is a common type of heart disease. This condition results from a buildup of plaque on the inside of the arteries, which reduces blood flow to the heart and increases the risk of a heart attack and other heart complications. Other forms of heart disease include:

  • irregular heartbeat (arrhythmias)
  • congenital heart defects
  • weak heart muscles (cardiomyopathy)
  • heart valve problems
  • heart infections
  • cardiovascular disease

Heart disease statistics

Approximately 610,000 people die from heart disease in the United States every year, according to the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC). It’s the leading cause of death in both men and women. Coronary heart disease is the deadliest of all heart diseases, just as it’s the most common form. The Heart Foundation estimates 380,000 related deaths per year.

The symptoms of heart disease vary between gender. Some are more obvious in men, who made up more than half of all heart disease-related deaths in the United States in 2009, according to the CDC. According to The Heart Foundation, 1 in 3 women die of heart disease every year in the United States. In 90 percent of these cases, women had at least one preventable risk factor.

Symptoms of heart disease

Heart disease is often called a "silent killer." Your doctor may not diagnose the disease until you show signs of a heart attack or heart failure. Symptoms of heart disease vary depending on the specific condition. For example, if you have a heart arrhythmia, symptoms may include:

  • a fast or slow heartbeat
  • dizziness
  • lightheadedness
  • chest pains
  • shortness of breath

Symptoms of a congenital (present at birth) heart defect may include skin discoloration, such as a bluish or pale color. You may also notice swelling in your legs and stomach. You might become easily tired or have shortness of breath shortly after beginning any type of physical activity.

If you have weak heart muscles, physical activity may cause tiredness and shortness of breath. Dizziness and swelling in the legs, ankle, or feet are also common with cardiomyopathy. Signs and symptoms of a heart infection can include:

  • tiredness
  • coughing
  • skin rash
  • irregular heartbeat
  • swelling in legs and stomach

Seek medical attention if you have any signs of heart problem. It’s important to address symptoms early since there are many types of heart diseases, each with its own set of symptoms.

Risk factors of heart disease

Several factors increase your risk of heart disease, like a family history of the disease, age, or ethnicity. Other common risk factors include:

  • smoking
  • high blood pressure
  • high blood cholesterol
  • diabetes
  • poor diet
  • lack of exercise
  • obesity
  • stress
  • poor hygiene (some viral and bacterial infections can affect the heart)

Diagnosing heart disease

Different tests are used to diagnose heart disease, and your doctor may choose a particular test based on your symptoms and a review of your family history. After a blood test and chest X-ray, other tests include:

  • electrocardiogram (EKG): a test that helps doctors identify problems with your heart’s rhythm
  • echocardiogram: a test that uses ultrasound waves to view the flow of blood through the heart
  • cardiac CT scan: an X-ray that creates cross-sectional views of your heart
  • cardiac MRI: a test that uses powerful magnets and radio waves to create images of your heart and surrounding tissue
  • stress test: a test that monitors your heart during periods of strenuous activity or exercise

How to treat heart disease

Heart disease treatments depend on the condition, but may include lifestyle changes and medications. Lifestyle changes can include the following.

Eat a healthy diet rich in fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, fruits, and vegetables. Choose foods that are low in fat, sodium, and cholesterol to help control your blood pressure.

Increase physical activity to maintain a healthy weight, reduce your risk of diabetes, and improve cholesterol levels. Aim for at least 60 minutes of activity per week, says the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Quit smoking, as it can lower your risk of heart disease and complications.

Drink alcohol in moderation, which can lower blood pressure and decrease the risk for heart disease. Men should drink no more than two, and women no more than one alcoholic beverage per day, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Learn how to deal with stress, either through exercise, medication, stress management therapy or support groups

When lifestyle changes do not improve your conditions, doctors may prescribe certain medications to reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke. These include medications that lower blood pressure or prevent blood clotting.

Sometimes, medical procedures are necessary to treat certain types of heart disease. These include an angioplasty (the doctor inserts a flexible tube into arteries to improve blood flow). A stent is often inserted as well, to keep the vessel open, or coronary artery bypass surgery is performed (blood vessels surgically moved from one area of the body to another to improve blood flow to the heart).

Outlook for heart disease

Between the cost of healthcare and lost productivity, coronary heart disease costs the United States $108.9 billion annually, according to the CDC. It’s important to diagnose and treat heart disease early. If left untreated, heart disease can cause a variety of complications, such as a heart attack, heart failure, stroke, aneurysm, and even death. Talk to your doctor if you think you have any symptoms of heart disease.

Preventing heart disease

Heart disease is the most common health condition in the United States, but it’s also the most preventable. The preventive steps you can take include:

  • exercise regularly: the Mayo Clinic recommends at least 30 minutes per day
  • avoid trans fatty acids: these are often found in packaged foods and labeled as "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" oils in the ingredients
  • limit your intake of saturated fat
  • watch your salt intake
  • eat more plant-based foods
  • quit smoking
  • lose weight or maintain your weight: talk to your doctor about healthy ways you can avoid weight gain or obesity

While risk factors for heart disease (such as hypertension) can run in the family, this doesn’t mean you can’t prevent your overall risk. Talk to your doctor about other steps you can take to reduce your chances of developing heart disease. 

Content licensed from:

Written by: Valencia Higuera and Kristeen Cherney
Medically reviewed on: Oct 10, 2016: Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, 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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