Heart Disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and treatment can reduce your risk of a heart attack.

In This Article
View All
In This Article

Heart disease, or cardiovascular disease, is the leading cause of death in the United States. The disease is an umbrella term that refers to several conditions that affect the heart and its blood vessels, including coronary artery disease and heart failure, among others.

Each type of heart disease affects the heart in its own niche way. But, the one thing each condition has in common is that it causes a problem in the overall functioning of the heart and the way it pumps blood to the rest of the body. Common symptoms of heart disease can include chest pain, a rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, and weakness.

The exact cause of heart disease depends on the specific heart condition you have. Generally, risk factors such as smoking tobacco and having high blood pressure can increase your risk of developing a type of heart disease.

If you receive a diagnosis for heart disease, your primary healthcare provider will likely work with a cardiologist (a doctor who specializes in the heart) to create a treatment plan that is right for your condition, symptoms, and overall health. Treatment options for heart disease may include medications, surgeries, and lifestyle changes.

Types

Heart disease refers to several heart conditions, which include, but are not limited to:

  • Coronary artery disease (CAD): The most common type of heart disease which occurs when there is a lack of blood flow to the heart muscle. A blockage in the arteries (your heart's blood vessels) can cause this condition. You may also experience angina, which is severe type of chest pain that occurs as a result of the reduction in blood
  • Infective endocarditis: This condition is a bacterial infection in the lining of the heart which can happen when bacteria enters the bloodstream. The condition can cause inflammation in the heart's chambers and valves.
  • Arrhythmia: Sometimes called cardiac arrhythmia, this condition occurs when you have an abnormal heart rhythm. Your heartbeat may either be too fast, too slow, or just beats
  • Heart failure: You can have heart failure when your heart doesn't pump the the right amount of blood that your body needs to function. This is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention, but it does not mean that your heart has stopped beating.
  • Heart valve diseases: This group of conditions affects your heart valves. There are three types: stenosis, regurgitation, and atresia. Heart valve disease can occur when there is a dysfunction in the way your blood flows.
  • Pericarditis: Damage to your pericardium (a membrane that surrounds the heart) can lead to this condition.
  • Cardiomyopathy: This occurs when the heart muscle becomes enlarged, thick, rigid, or scarred. The condition can make it increasingly difficult for the heart to supply blood to your organs. It may eventually result in heart weakness, irregular heartbeat, or heart failure.
  • Congenital heart defect: A birth defect that affects babies and occurs if there is a problem in development during pregnancy.
  • Peripheral arterial disease: This condition can happen when your arteries become narrow, making it difficult for blood to flow to and from your heart.
  • Pulmonary hypertension: Hypertension is the clinical term for high blood pressure. This condition happens when there is an issue in the blood vessels that pump blood from your heart to your lungs.
  • Cerebrovascular disease: This condition is commonly referred to a "stroke." There are two types of stroke: ischemic and hemorrhagic. An ischemic stroke occurs when there is a blockage in the blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to your brain. A hemorrhagic stroke occurs if a blood vessel bursts within the brain.
  • Myocardial infarction: This is the clinical name for heart attack. A heart attack happens when blood stops flowing to the heart, causing the death or damage of the heart muscle. A heart attack is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention.

Symptoms

Symptoms of heart disease can vary depending on the type of heart condition you have. It's not always easy to know that you have heart disease, as symptoms can sometimes go unnoticed.

However, you should reach out to your healthcare provider if you begin to experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Chest pain (angina)
  • Shortness of breath, particularly while being active
  • Heart palpitations or rapid heart rate
  • Feeling more tired than usual
  • Weakness
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Indigestion or heartburn
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pain or tightness in your upper back, neck, jaw, or shoulders
  • Sleep problems
  • Water retention in your arms, legs, or stomach

While many of these symptoms can also be related to other conditions, it's good practice to get checked out by your healthcare provider anyway to rule out these conditions or get you started on heart disease treatment, if needed.

Causes

High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking are the biggest suspects of heart disease. Each of these factors can increase your risk of plaque buildup, which can cause your blood vessels to narrow, restrict blood flow, and lead to heart damage.

Some medical conditions also put you at risk for heart disease. For instance, diabetes makes you twice as likely to have a stroke as someone with normal blood sugar levels.

Other risk factors include:

  • Obesity
  • Eating a diet high in fat, sugars, or processed foods
  • Living a sedentary lifestyle, with little to no exercise
  • Consuming too much alcohol
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Stress

In some cases, having one type of heart disease can also lead to other heart problems. For example, CAD or cardiomyopathy may lead to heart failure, especially if these conditions are not treated.

Diagnosis

Experiencing heart disease symptoms and going in for an appointment to test for heart disease can be scary. But, it's important to know if you have heart disease so your care team (e.g., your healthcare provider and cardiologist) can offer you treatment options that can reduce your symptoms and improve your condition.

During your appointment, your healthcare provider will ask your about your medical and family history and conduct a standard physical exam. This can help them move forward with the diagnostic process and learn what types of tests to order to confirm or rule out a diagnosis.

Several tests may diagnose heart disease, such as:

  • Blood Tests: Several blood tests can measure your risk of heart disease, including checking for specific heart-related blood proteins, cholesterol levels, and inflammation.
  • Cardiac catheterization: This procedure looks at your blood vessels and heart valves. Your healthcare provider will insert a catheter (small tube) into a blood vessel in your arm, groin, or neck. The thin tube connects to your heart to get a better understanding of your heart health.
  • Cardiac CT scan: Your healthcare provider may use this test to take pictures and 3-D models of your heart and blood vessels. A cardiac CT scan can assess the amount of calcium buildup in the artery walls. This test is most often used to diagnose CAD or heart valve diseases.
  • Imaging tests: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or positron emission tomography (PET) are examples of imaging tests. They take pictures of your heart and blood vessels and can help your provider take a closer look at your blood flow.
  • Chest x-ray: This scan also takes pictures of the inside of your chest and can help diagnose heart failure.
  • Coronary angiography: This procedure uses a special dye and x-ray images to check for signs of plaque build-up in your arteries. 
  • Echocardiography: This test takes a sonogram (or ultrasound) of your heart. The results can show your provider how well your heart chambers and valves function. 
  • Electrocardiogram: Commonly called an EKG or ECG, this test examines your heart's electrical signals and rhythm.
  • Stress test: Your healthcare provider will hook you up to an EKG machine. Then, they will ask you to walk on a treadmill or use a stationary bike. This test assesses how well your heart works while physically active.

Keep in mind: your care team may use a combination of these tests before giving you an official heart disease diagnosis.

Treatment

Treatment options depend on the type of heart disease you have and severity of your condition. Your care team will work with you develop a treatment plan that is best for your you. They will usually recommend a combination of lifestyle adjustments and medications. In some cases, you may need to have surgery or enter a cardiac rehabilitation program.

Lifestyle Changes

The same habits that help prevent heart disease also help treat it. Your care team may recommend:

  • Eating a heart-healthy diet (like a plant-based diet or low-fat diet)
  • Exercising regularly
  • Managing a weight that is right for you
  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Reducing stress
  • Quitting smoking
  • Limiting alcohol

Medications

The exact medication your healthcare provider may prescribe depends on your heart condition and if you have any other co-occurring health conditions. In general, some of the most common medications that manage heart disease include:

  • Aspirin: Can prevent blood clots, which may cause a heart attack or ischemic stroke
  • ACE inhibitors, beta-blockers, and diuretics: Help lower blood pressure
  • Statins: Lowers cholesterol
  • Metformin: Decrease your blood sugar if you have diabetes
  • Nitrates or ranolazine: Treats chest pain

Surgery

Depending on your condition, you may require heart surgery. The main goals of surgery are generally to improve blood flow to your heart or open up blocked arteries. Examples of heart surgeries include:

  • Angioplasty: Opens up a blocked artery
  • Artificial heart valve surgery: Replaces a damaged heart valve with a healthy valve
  • Atherectomy: Removes plaque build up in your arteries
  • Bypass surgery: Reroutes blood vessels to improve oxygen and blood flow in your heart
  • Catheter ablation: Helps fix an irregular heartbeat
  • Heart transplant: Uses an organ donation to replace your heart with a new one

Your care team may also recommend procedures that insert medical devices into your body such as a pacemaker or implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD).

Cardiac Rehabilitation

If you've recently had a heart attack, heart failure, or heart surgery, a cardiac rehabilitation program may help speed up your recovery and decrease the risk of future complications. Cardiac rehabilitation involves:

  • Regularly exercising
  • Eating a heart-healthy diet
  • Lowering your blood pressure or cholesterol
  • Managing other chronic conditions (such as diabetes or depression)
  • Losing weight (if necessary)
  • Quitting smoking
  • Learning how to better manage your condition
  • Going to counseling to understand stress management techniques

Prevention

A healthy lifestyle helps prevent heart disease. Some changes you can incorporate in your daily life include:

  • Eating a healthy diet: Consume a plant-based diet. Eat vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and lean proteins. Avoid highly processed and high-sugar foods. Cut down on fatty cuts of meat that tend to be higher in saturated fat. Incorporate more fiber in your meals. Limit sodium to no more than 2,300 milligrams per day.
  • Stay active: Make time for daily exercise. Avoid being inactive for long periods of time. Try to move around if you have a job that requires you to sit all day. Aim for 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or try 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise. Find a workout you like that can help you stick to a routine. Remember that active hobbies, like gardening, also count as exercise.
  • Quitting smoking: Don't start smoking. If you do smoke, now is the time to quit. Being exposed to secondhand smoke can also damage your heart.
  • Watching your numbers: Keep track of your cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar.

A Quick Review

Heart disease refers to several conditions that affect your heart health. This group of conditions is the leading cause of death in the United States, regardless of sex. While symptoms of heart disease can vary based on your specific condition, most people with a heart condition experience chest pain, a rapid heartbeat, and difficulty breathing.

High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking can increase your risk of heart disease. Other lifestyle factors such as eating a diet high in fat, living a sedentary lifestyle, and excessive stress can also increase your risk of developing a heart condition.

If you notice changes to your heart health or begin to experience symptoms, it's a good idea to get tested. Your healthcare provider can use a combination of blood, imaging, and physical tests to confirm a diagnosis and rule out other conditions.

While heart disease can be a life-changing and scary condition to experience, the good news is that healthy lifestyle changes can help you manage your condition and live a long life.

Was this page helpful?
Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Heart Association. Cardiovascular diseases affect nearly half of American adults, statistics show.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About heart disease.

  3. National Library of Medicine. Heart disease.

  4. American Heart Association. What is cardiovascular disease?

  5. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Coronary artery disease.

  6. American Heart Association. Heart valves and infective endocarditis.

  7. American Heart Association. Symptoms, diagnosis and monitoring of arrhythmia.

  8. American Heart Association. Heart failure signs and symptoms.

  9. MedlinePlus. Heart valve diseases.

  10. American Heart Association. Symptoms and diagnosis of pericarditis.

  11. American Heart Association. What is cardiomyopathy in adults?

  12. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Congenital heart defects symptoms.

  13. American Heart Association. Symptoms of PAD.

  14. Hoeper MM, Ghofrani HA, Grünig E, et al. Pulmonary hypertension. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2017;114(5):73-84. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2017.0073

  15. American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Cerebrovascular disease.

  16. American Heart Association. Warning signs of a heart attack.

  17. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes and your heart.

  18. National Library of Medicine. Heart health tests.

  19. National Library of Medicine. Cholesterol levels.

  20. Rippe JM. Lifestyle Strategies for Risk Factor Reduction, Prevention, and Treatment of Cardiovascular DiseaseAm J Lifestyle Med. 2018;13(2):204-212. doi:10.1177/1559827618812395

  21. Grandner MA, Alfonso-Miller P, Fernandez-Mendoza J, Shetty S, Shenoy S, Combs D. Sleep: important considerations for the prevention of cardiovascular diseaseCurr Opin Cardiol. 2016;31(5):551-565. doi:10.1097/HCO.0000000000000324

  22. Schwalm JD, McKee M, Huffman MD, Yusuf S. Resource Effective Strategies to Prevent and Treat Cardiovascular DiseaseCirculation. 2016;133(8):742-755. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.115.008721

  23. Mehta PK, Sharma S, Minissian M, et al. Ranolazine Reduces Angina in Women with Ischemic Heart Disease: Results of an Open-Label, Multicenter TrialJ Womens Health (Larchmt). 2019;28(5):573-582. doi:10.1089/jwh.2018.7019

  24. American Heart Association. Heart procedures and surgeries.

  25. National Library of Medicine. Cardiac rehabilitation.

  26. American Heart Association. 8 things you can do to prevent heart disease and stroke.

  27. American Heart Association. How much sodium should I eat per day?

Related Articles