Heart Disease Overview

Heart disease remains the leading killer in America, but even if you have a family history, heart disease and heart attacks are not inevitable. A healthy diet, regular exercise, cholesterol-lowering drugs, and lifesaving surgeries can reduce your risk of having—or dying from—a heart attack.

In This Article
View All
In This Article

Heart disease remains the leading killer in America, but even if you have a family history, heart disease and heart attacks are not inevitable. A healthy diet, regular exercise, cholesterol-lowering drugs, and lifesaving surgeries can reduce your risk of having—or dying from—a heart attack.

What Is It?

Heart disease is a term for conditions that affect the health of your heart. And, it's deadly, being the number one killer of men and women in the United States. Extremely common, cardiovascular diseases affect nearly one in two adults in the US. That's due, in part, to the sheer number of people who qualify as having hypertension, or high blood pressure.

The most common form of heart disease is called coronary artery disease, and it happens when plaque builds up in the walls of the coronary arteries. Eventually these deposits can block blood flow and trigger a heart attack. This process also weakens the heart and can lead to other conditions, such as heart failure.

Genetics or family history are linked to heart disease risk, so it's important to know the health history of your family members. Still, lifestyle behaviors, such as diet, exercise, and smoking, play a huge role in the development and prevention of heart disease.

Finally, your race and ethnicity play a part in risk of death from heart disease, African Americans are more than twice as likely to die from heart disease and are 50 percent more likely to have high blood pressure compared to whites Americans.


Heart disease is a term for a group of diseases that affect the heart.

Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)

The most common cause of heart disease that results from a narrowing or blockage of coronary arteries that can lead to a heart attack.

Heart Failure

A condition when a weakened heart can't fill up with enough blood or adequately pump blood around the body. Heart failure can be caused by CAD. It can also lead to complications like liver and kidney damage and cardiac arrest.


This is an abnormal rate of the heartbeat. Factors such as disease, injury, or genes can cause changes that lead to an arrhythmia. You may feel these irregular heartbeats as flutters or it may feel like its pounding.

Heart Valve Disease

Occurs when one of the heart's four valves doesn't work as it should to direct blood through your heart's chambers and into the lungs and the rest of the body.

Hypertensive Heart Disease

Long-term high blood pressure can thicken the heart muscle, which impairs its ability to get the oxygen it needs. This can lead to heart failure.

Congenital Heart Defects

These are heart defects that are present at birth that affect how the heart works. These may be diagnosed during pregnancy, in childhood, or later on in adulthood.


Diseases of the heart muscle that cause it to become enlarged, thick, rigid, or scarred eventually resulting in heart weakness that can lead to heart failure and arrhythmia.


A bacterial or fungal infection in the bloodstream that causes inflammation in the lining of the heart chambers and valves.


It's not always easy to know that you have heart disease, as you may not experience any symptoms until you have a serious or life-threatening problem, like a heart attack.

  • Chest pain (angina) or discomfort that may feel like pressure, heaviness, squeezing, or fullness.
  • Upper back, neck, or jaw pain.
  • Stomach pain.
  • Pain in one or both arms.
  • Indigestion or heartburn.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness.
  • Shortness of breath, especially with activity or while resting.
  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat.
  • Changes in skin color (to pale or grey).
  • Anxiety.
  • Coughing and wheezing.
  • Heart palpitations, also known as arrhythmia.
  • Weakness.
  • Fatigue.
  • Swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, abdomen, or neck veins.


Certain risk factors make it more likely that you'll develop plaque buildup that narrows arteries and blocks blood flow. These are having high blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as smoking.

There are also several lifestyle habits and medical conditions that can put you at risk for heart disease. For instance, having diabetes makes you twice as likely to have a stroke compared to someone with normal blood sugar levels. Being at an unhealthy weight, eating an unhealthy diet (one high in processed foods, sugar, and saturated fat-rich foods), being sedentary, and consuming too much alcohol are other factors.

In addition, having one type of heart disease can lead to additional problems with your heart. As an example, coronary heart artery disease or cardiomyopathy can lead to heart failure.


Along with taking your personal history, family history, and talking to you about your symptoms, you may be given the following tests:

Blood Tests: There are several options that may be used to evaluate your risk of heart disease, including a lipid panel for cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as tests that look at inflammatory markers, lipoproteins, blood sugar, or electrolytes.

An EKG: Also called an electrocardiogram, this test analyzes your heart's electrical signals and rhythm.

Stress test: Your doctor will hook you up to an EKG machine and ask you to walk or run on a treadmill or use a stationary bike assess how well your heart works.

Echocardiogram: This test is used to take an ultrasound of the heart.

Cardiac CT scan: Can be used to assess the amount of calcium buildup in the walls of arteries.

Other imaging tests: MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or PET (positron emission tomography) are other imaging tests that look at blood flow.

Cardiac catheterization: An invasive procedure that looks at blood vessels, heart valves and other measures to determine heart health.


When it comes to heart disease treatment, you can think of it in three tiers, depending on the severity of your condition. Each type of heart disease has its own treatment, but the following is recommended for coronary artery disease:

Lifestyle changes. The same habits that help prevent heart disease also treat heart disease. Those include losing weight if you're overweight or obese, exercising regularly, eating a heart-healthy plant-based diet, getting adequate sleep, reducing stress, and quitting smoking.

Medication. Doctors have a host of medications available to them, and the one they use hinges on any additional health conditions you may have, as well as your symptoms. They include:

  • ACE inhibitors, beta blockers, and calcium channel blockers that lower blood pressure.
  • Blood sugar-lowering medications or metformin if you have diabetes.
  • Nitrates or Ranolazine for chest pain.
  • Statins for high cholesterol.

Surgery. Procedures, such as angioplasty and stent placement (to improve blood flow to the heart) or coronary artery bypass graft surgery (which brings veins from other areas of the body to bypass blocked arteries) may be recommended.


A healthy lifestyle goes a long way when it comes to preventing heart disease—even if your habits were not great before. Eating a nutritious diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, and avoiding smoking keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar in the healthy range to decrease your risk.

Eat a Healthy Diet. Consume a plant-based diet full of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and lean proteins—similar to a Mediterranean Diet. Avoid highly processed and high-sugar foods, as well as fatty cuts of meat that tend to be higher in saturated fat. Limit sodium to no more than 2,300 milligrams per day.

Keep Your Weight Healthy. Being overweight or having obesity increases your risk for heart disease. Focusing on the healthy habits mentioned here—a nutritious diet, daily activity—can help you bring down those risk factors associated with carrying excess weight.

Stay Active. Make time for exercise daily and avoid being sedentary for long periods of time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise. Finding a workout you like, whether that's walking, jogging, or dancing, will help you stick to a routine. Don't forget that active hobbies, such as gardening, also count as exercise.

Don't smoke. Don't start smoking and if you are a smoker, now is the time to quit. Being exposed to secondhand smoke can also damage your heart.

Watch Your Numbers. Get your cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar measured as indicated by your doctor.

To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles