Key Points about Heart Disease

  • Heart disease the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. 
  • The most common type of heart disease is coronary artery disease, which involves a build-up of plaques in arterial walls.
  • Common risk factors for heart disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and family history of heart disease.
  • Many forms of heart disease can be prevented or treated with healthy lifestyle choices.
  • Cardiovascular disease is most commonly treated with medications, diet and lifestyle modifications, and smoking cessation.
  • It is crucial to seek treatment right away if you experience symptoms that could signal a heart attack or stroke.  

Overview

Cardiovascular disease, also known as heart disease, describes conditions that affect the structure and function of the heart and vascular system that can lead to heart attack, angina (chest pain), and stroke. While the term ‘heart disease’ commonly refers to conditions that involve a narrowing or blockage of blood vessels, other conditions involving heart rhythms, valves, and muscles are forms of heart disease as well.

The following are all forms of heart disease:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Abnormal heart rhythms
  • Heart failure
  • Heart valve disease
  • Pericarditis
  • Congenital heart disease
  • Cardiomyopathies
  • Vascular diseases

The causes, risk factors and symptoms of cardiovascular disease vary depending upon the specific condition. 

Heart disease causes

The most common cause of cardiovascular disease is atherosclerosis, which occurs when deposits of fat and cholesterol build up in arteries. This plaque build-up results in thickened and stiff artery walls, which restricts blood flow to your heart, brain, and other organs. It can be caused by factors under a patient’s control such as an unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity, smoking, and being overweight, or it can result from other factors such as family history and genetics.

Heart disease risk factors

Key risk factors for heart disease include:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Older age
  • Smoking

Other risk factors include: 

  • Family history of heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Being overweight
  • Poor diet
  • Consuming alcohol in excess
  • Being physically inactive

Heart disease symptoms

The symptoms of heart disease depend upon its type.

Men and women can experience different symptoms. Men, for example, are more likely to experience chest pain, while women are more likely to have additional symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea and extreme fatigue.

Common Symptoms of coronary artery related disease include:

  • Chest pain
  • Chest tightness
  • Chest pressure and chest discomfort (angina)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in the neck, jaw, throat, back or upper abdomen

Symptoms related to heart disease arrhythmias include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Fluttering in your chest
  • Racing heartbeat or slow heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting

Heart disease complications 

The following complications can result from heart disease:

  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
  • Sudden cardiac arrest
  • Aneurysm
  • Stroke
  • Peripheral artery disease

Heart disease prevention 

Many forms of heart disease can be prevented by adopting a healthy lifestyle. The following are important factors in the prevention of cardiovascular disease:

  • Maintaining a healthy blood pressure.
  • Lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels. High cholesterol levels contribute to arterial blockages and raises your risk of coronary artery disease and heart attack.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight. Being overweight can contribute to high cholesterol and triglyceride levels, high blood pressure, and diabetes; all risk factors for heart disease.
  • Eating a healthy diet by limiting saturated fats, avoid high sodium and sugary foods and eat fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Exercising regularly to strengthen your heart and lower blood pressure.
  • Limiting alcohol intake. Alcohol contributes to high blood pressure and weight gain, thereby increasing risk of heart disease.
  • Quitting smoking. Cigarette smoking can raise your blood pressure, putting you at higher risk for heart attack and stroke.
  • Getting adequate sleep. Sleep helps regulate blood pressure, diabetes, and weight.
  • Managing stress. Choosing productive ways to manage stress such as exercise, meditation, and rest help you avoid harmful habits such as overeating and excessive alcohol consumption.

Heart disease diagnosis

Your doctor will decide what tests to perform for diagnosing cardiovascular disease, based upon your symptoms and history. Common tests include:

  • Electrocardiogram (EKG)
  • Echocardiogram
  • Halter monitoring
  • Blood test
  • Stress test
  • Cardiac catheterization
  • Cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Cardiac computerized tomography (CT) scan

Heart disease treatment

The most common treatments for heart disease involve lifestyle modifications, such as:

  • Adopting a heart healthy diet
  • Getting 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least 5 days a week
  • Limiting alcohol intake
  • Quitting smoking

Your doctor may also recommend certain medications such as statins, which can reduce blood cholesterol levels, and various medical procedures.

When to seek care 

Call your doctor if you experience any of the listed symptoms for heart disease, or if you have a concern about your family history of heart disease.

Next Steps

Talk to your doctor about lowering your risk for heart disease.