Yasmine Ali, MD, is board-certified in cardiology. She is an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and an award-winning physician writer.
Heart disease is a term used to describe a constellation of conditions that can affect the heart and/or its valves, vessels, structure, electrical system, or coronary arteries.
Conditions that fall within the scope of heart disease include cardiac arrhythmias, high blood pressure, heart failure, coronary artery disease, valve disorders, and congenital heart defects, among others.
Though each disease affects the heart differently, the ultimate problem with all varieties of heart disease is that, in one way or another, they can disrupt the vital pumping action of the heart.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women.
The causes of heart disease vary depending on the exact condition you've been diagnosed with. Some may be congenital (from birth), and others may be unknown, but there are several lifestyle factors that increase your risk of developing the disease: poor diet, low activity level, excess weight, smoking, and whether other chronic conditions you may have are well-managed.
There's a lot you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease, and working with your doctor to perform a formal risk assessment is the first step. Then, start making small changes to your lifestyle to reduce each risk category, like quitting smoking, starting an exercise regimen, and eating a heart-healthy diet. Making as many changes as possible can improve your chances of prevention.
While some may have a genetic predisposition for developing a heart disease, the most common type, coronary artery disease (CAD), is more often due to lifestyle choices and/or environmental factors rather than genetics alone. However, some of the genetic mutations predisposing a person to CAD may arise without being inherited—known as epigenetic changes, which can turn genes on and off.
While there is no single cure for heart disease, there are many treatment options available to help you live a long, full life. Specific treatments depend on the condition you've been diagnosed with, but most depend heavily on lifestyle modifications. In the event that these don't help, medications can reduce your risk, or your doctor may also talk to you about surgery.
A problem with the rhythm or rate of your heartbeat, which usually occurs due to a change in heart tissue or a malfunction in the electrical system of the heart. When the heart beats too fast, it's known as tachycardia. When it beats too slow, it's known as bradycardia. You may notice a fluttering in your chest, but oftentimes there are no symptoms.
A chronic condition in which deposits of cholesterol, fats, and calcium (known as plaque) build up and adhere to artery walls. Plaque hardens over time and may restrict blood flow. There are often no symptoms until either the plaque ruptures the artery (arterial thrombosis), or balloons out to form an aneurysm. Treatment may include medications or surgery to open blocked arteries.
A blood clot (thrombus) is a clump of coagulated (clotted) blood that forms in the body and interferes with blood flow. If a clot travels to the heart, brain, lungs, or limbs, it may lead to stroke or heart attack. Certain forms of heart disease, notably atherosclerosis, atrial fibrillation, or heart failure, may increase your risk of excessive blood clotting.
A procedure during which a catheter is inserted into the chambers or vessels of the heart, which is used to evaluate, diagnose, and treat various heart conditions. Angiography is usually performed simultaneously, in which dye is injected into your blood vessels so they can be visible via an X-ray or ultrasound, and to track how blood flows in your body.
A disease of the heart muscle that affects how blood flows through the body. There are several forms, each with different symptoms, but generally, each type of cardiomyopathy is marked by an eventual enlargement and thickening of the heart, which makes the heart unable to pump blood properly. Cardiomyopathy may be hereditary or acquired as a result of another condition or cause.
A malformation in the heart muscle, valves, or other structure in the heart that affects function and has been present since birth. One of the most common forms of birth defects, affecting 1% of babies in the United States. Some types of congenital heart defects may only cause minor issues with heart function, whereas others can have serious, life-threatening consequences.
A transthoracic echocardiogram (TTE), also known as a cardiac echo, is an ultrasound imaging test used to visualize the movement and function of the heart muscle. The test is non-invasive and can be helpful in diagnosing specific forms of heart disease, however, it can't show blockages in the coronary arteries. For that, a cardiac catheterization may be warranted.
A diagnostic test that tracks your heart's rhythm and produces a tracing in the form of a wave pattern. The test is noninvasive, using 10 electrodes attached to the body that transmit your heart's electrical activity to an ECG machine that creates the characteristic wave patterns. ECGs can be used to detect heart disease and may be used for yearly screening tests or pre-operative tests.
An infection of the inner lining (endocardium) of your heart chambers and valves. In some cases, bacteria circulating in the blood can attach itself to the heart and cause inflammation. Endocarditis is rare, but if you already have a heart condition, such as congenital heart defects or any type of structural heart disease, you may be at a higher risk.
A portable device worn around the chest for 24 to 48 hours that measures the heart's electrical activity as you go about your daily activities. The Holter monitor is a form of electrocardiogram (ECG) that can be used to diagnose heart arrhythmias.
A collection of cholesterol, fat (lipids), calcium deposits, and other substances that accumulate as deposits on the inner walls of your arteries. Over time, plaque hardens, which can narrow arteries, restricting the amount of oxygenated blood circulating in the body.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease facts. Updated September 2020.
Thériault S, Lali R, Chong M, Velianou JL, Natarajan MK, Paré G. Polygenic contribution in individuals with early-onset coronary artery disease. Circ Genom Precis Med. 2018;11(1):e001849. doi:10.1161/CIRCGEN.117.001849
Duan L, Liu C, Hu J, et al. Epigenetic mechanisms in coronary artery disease: The current state and prospects. Trends Cardiovasc Med. 2018;28(5):311-319. doi:10.1016/j.tcm.2017.12.012
National Institutes of Health: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Arrhythmia.
Kobiyama K, Ley K. Atherosclerosis. Circ Res. 2018;123(10):1118–1120. doi:10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.118.313816
American Heart Association. Understand your risk for excessive blood clotting.
Barreto T. Pulse oximetry screening for critical congenital heart defects in newborns. Am Fam Physician. 2019;99(7):421-422.
National Organization for Rare Disorders. Infective endocarditis.
American Heart Association. What is cardiomyopathy?. Updated October 14, 2020.
National Institutes of Health: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Atherosclerosis.
By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts.