Heart Disease

Heart disease, or cardiac disease, describes an assortment of conditions that affect your heart and blood vessels. These conditions include things such as coronary heart disease, or congenital heart defects, which you’re born with. While both the terms heart disease and cardiovascular disease are used interchangeably, cardiovascular disease generally refers to conditions that involve narrow or blocked blood vessels, which lead to other heart conditions, including heart attack.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in men and women, though in 2009, more than 50 percent of heart disease deaths were in men. Annually, 610,000 Americans, or 1 in 4, will die from heart disease. Every 42 seconds, someone in the United States has a heart attack, and every minute, someone dies due to a heart disease-related event. While some forms of heart disease cannot be prevented, such as congenital heart defects, many can be prevented or treated with healthy lifestyle choices and basic understanding.

Heart Disease Symptoms

Unfortunately, there are often no symptoms of heart disease, and for some people, having a stroke or heart attack is the first warning sign. Symptoms will be dependent upon which type of heart disease you have.

Coronary Artery Disease

The most common symptom is angina or chest pain, but other symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Palpitations, or irregular heartbeats
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Sweating

Heart Attack

Symptoms will typically last 30 minutes or longer and will not be relieved by rest. Symptoms may start as minor discomfort and elevate to significant pain, and some people will even have a heart attack without having any symptoms.

  • Discomfort, pressure, heaviness, or pain in chest, arm, or below breastbone
  • Fullness, indigestion, or choking feeling
  • Sweating, nausea, vomiting, dizziness
  • Weakness, shortness of breath
  • Irregular heartbeat


An arrhythmia is an abnormal heart rhythm, which may include the following symptoms:

  • Palpitations, or irregular heartbeats
  • Pounding in your chest
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Fainting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest discomfort
  • Weakness or fatigue

Heart Failure

Heart failure may be a chronic, or sudden condition. Symptoms of heart failure include:

  • Shortness of breath, commonly when you lay down flat in bed
  • Cough that produces white sputum
  • Rapid weight gain
  • Swelling in legs, ankles, abdomen
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeats

What are Causes of Heart Disease?

Often, heart failure develops due to other conditions weakening or damaging your heart. Though heart failure occurs when your heart is weakened, it can also occur if the heart becomes too stiff.

Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) is a disease of the arteries that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. CAD causes decreased blood flow to the heart muscle. If arteries become blocked or severely narrowed, the heart is unable to pump the oxygen and nutrients needed.

Heart attacks occur when a coronary artery becomes blocked, stopping the flow of blood to the heart muscle. Heart attacks cause damage to heart muscles, which can cause them not to work properly.

Cardiomyopathy is damage to the heart muscle from other causes aside from artery or blood flow problems. These causes may be from infections, alcohol, or drug abuse.

Other conditions that can contribute to congestive heart failure are as follows:

  • High blood pressure
  • Valve disease
  • Thyroid disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Diabetes
  • Heart defects present at birth

Diagnosing Heart Disease

After describing your symptoms to a healthcare provider, you will most likely be referred to a heart specialist or cardiologist. To confirm a diagnosis, the cardiologist will perform a full physical exam and may order a number of tests to examine heart valves, blood vessels, and chambers. Some of these tests may include:

  • An electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) to record heart rhythm
  • An echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to record the heart’s structure and motion
  • A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to take pictures of your heart
  • A stress test will show how well your heart performs under various levels of stress
  • Blood tests to check for abnormal blood cells and/or infections
  • Cardiac catheterization to show blockages in the coronary arteries

What are Treatments for Heart Disease?

Depending on how your condition has progressed and your overall health, a cardiologist may prescribe medications that include:

  • Angiotensin-converting-enzyme (ACE) inhibitors help to open up narrowed blood vessels to improve blood flow
  • Beta-blockers can help to reduce blood pressure and slow a rapid heart rhythm
  • Diuretics may help reduce the body’s fluid content

If medications alone are not enough to treat congestive heart failure, there are surgical procedures that may help including an angioplasty, or heart valve repair surgery.

There are many things you can do to keep heart failure from worsening:

  • Stop smoking or chewing tobacco.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Do not consume alcohol.
  • Keep your blood pressure low so your heart can pump most effectively.
  • Maintain your fluid balance because the more fluids in your vessels, the harder your heart must work to pump it through your body.
  • Limit your sodium intake for less fluid retention and less swelling.
  • Take your medications as prescribed.
  • Monitor your weight. If you have unexpected weight gain (3 pounds in one day, 5 pounds in a week), contact your doctor.

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Frequently Asked Questions

My father was recently diagnosed with heart disease. What are some not-for-profit organizations that I can join to help raise awareness of heart disease?

The most popular not-for-profit that focuses on heart disease is the American Heart Association. Their mission is to build healthier lives, free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke. However, other not-for-profits include: The Heart Foundation, Children’s Heart Foundation, and One Million Hearts, a byproduct of the Department of Health and Human Services.

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What is the most common heart disease in senior citizens?

The most common heart disease in senior citizens is coronary artery disease. It’s caused by the narrowing and/or blockage of blood vessels that supply the heart. For more information on coronary artery disease or other heart diseases, check out World Heart Federation’s list of heart diseases.

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