6 Things to Know About Heart Disease

Doctor William C Lloyd Healthgrades Medical Reviewer
Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Mark Bochkis on December 18, 2021
  • Happy senior man
    Important Facts About Heart Disease
    Heart disease affects roughly one in every 10 adults, and is responsible for more than 15 million doctor visits a year. It’s the leading cause of death in the United States—for both men and women, and for most ethnicities. Heart problems can result from developmental, genetic and environmental factors, and can also be caused by lifestyle habits like a high-fat diet or lack of exercise. The good news is you can help reduce your risk by making healthier choices. Here’s what you need to know about heart disease—and what you can do to stay heart-healthy.
  • Doctor explaining to patient
    1. There are many different types of heart disease.
    Most commonly, heart disease describes damage to the heart or heart vessels by plaque buildup (atherosclerosis). Heart diseases and disorders are diagnosed by which heart functions are impacted, sometimes divided into “electrical” (related to pumping rhythm) and “plumbing” (related to blood flow). An irregular heartbeat indicates a problem with the heart’s electrical signals. Some conditions cause the heart muscle to harden or enlarge, affecting the heart’s ability to pump. With heart failure, the heart has become too weak to pump blood as well as it should. A malfunctioning heart valve (valvular heart disease) impacts normal blood flow through the heart’s chambers. In some cases, heart problems are present at birth; this is called congenital heart disease.
  • Man with chest pain
    2. Coronary artery disease restricts the flow of blood to your heart.
    Over time, atherosclerosis causes arteries to become narrow and harden. This restricts the normal flow of blood back to the heart. The resulting cascade of problems is called coronary artery disease (CAD). Symptoms of CAD include chest pain, arrhythmias and blood clots. Left untreated, CAD can cause heart failure, stroke, or a heart attack. Heart attacks and strokes happen when a blood clot breaks off, gets stuck in a narrow artery, and cuts off the blood supply to the heart or the brain. If not treated right away, heart attack and stroke can result in permanent organ damage or death.
  • Dizzy in the Gym
    3. Heart disease can cause other diverse symptoms.
    In addition to the effects of atherosclerosis, heart disease can produce other signs. Symptoms of arrhythmias include heart flutters, racing or slow heartbeat, lightheadedness, dizziness, and fainting. Congenital heart defects are known to produce pale gray or blue skin (cyanosis); swelling in hands, legs and feet; shortness of breath during exercise; lack of stamina; and poor weight gain in infants. In late stages of cardiomyopathy, you may experience fatigue, breathlessness after physical exertion or rest, swelling of the lower extremities, and irregular heartbeats. A heart infection may result in fever, skin rashes, dry and persistent cough, abdominal swelling, and weakness.     
  • Woman with chest pain
    4. Women and men can experience heart disease differently.
    Common heart problems like atherosclerosis, heart failure, and arrhythmias affect men and women more or less equally. But some heart conditions occur more frequently in women. Women are more likely to experience two specific types of angina (chest pain): stable angina, which occurs during physical activity or times of stress, and variant (Prinzmetal’s) angina, which is caused by spasms in the coronary muscles. Cardiac syndrome X and stress-induced cardiomyopathy (or broken heart syndrome) are also diagnosed more often in women. Symptoms of heart attack can be different as well. Women may have more subtle symptoms like shortness of breath, lower chest pain, dizziness, and fatigue that many people don’t immediately associate with a heart attack. 
  • Three senior black women exercising together
    5. You can take action to protect yourself from heart disease.
    While some factors like family history or genetics are out of your control, there are many steps you can take to lower your risk for heart disease. Make a nutritious diet and good sleep habits the foundation of your daily regimen. Controlling your blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and weight can help minimize plaque deposits in your arteries. Not smoking, or quitting if you do is one of the most effective ways to keep your blood pressure in check. Regular exercise and other stress-relieving activities are healthy for your heart and your body overall. Diabetes doubles your risk for certain heart problems, so maintaining consistent control of your blood sugar levels can protect your heart.    
  • emergency-room-entrance
    6. Know when to see a doctor or call 911.
    If you are experiencing chest pain together with shortness of breath, lightheadedness, sweating, upper body pain, extreme fatigue, or heart palpitation, call 911 seek medical help immediately. These can be signs of a heart attack in progress. See your doctor if you have chest pain without any additional symptoms, or to discuss your risk factors and preventive steps you can take. Heart disease is most successfully treated when diagnosed early, so keep up with your annual physicals. In many cases, heart disease is diagnosed at a routine doctor’s visit.
6 Things to Know About Heart Disease: Types, Symptoms & Prevention

About The Author

  1. Heart disease. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20353118
  2. Heart Diseases. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/heartdiseases.html
  3. Heart Disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/heart-disease.htm
  4. Heart Disease in Women. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/heartdiseaseinwomen.html
  5. Heart disease and women. Office of Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.womenshealth.gov/heart-disease-and-stroke/heart-disease/heart-disease-and-women
  6. How to Prevent Heart Disease. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/howtopreventheartdisease.html
  7. Congenital Heart Defects. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/congenitalheartdefects.html
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Last Review Date: 2021 Dec 18
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