Types of Heart Disease

Heart diseases impact how blood pumps and circulates within the body. When a doctor says that you have heart disease, they may be referencing one of several conditions that can commonly impact the heart or blood vessels. There are many different types of heart disease, covered in detail below. 

Types of Heart Disease

Eternity in an Instant / Getty Images

Heart Failure

Heart failure occurs when the heart can no longer pump effectively to meet the needs of the body.

The heart plays an important role in supplying blood and oxygen to the rest of the body. The most important job of the heart is ensuring blood gets to other organs in the body.

When the heart starts to fail, blood flow to other organs—like the kidneys, lungs, and brain—can slow down. In many ways, heart failure impacts the entire body and not just the heart.

There are several different types of heart failure, so if you’re having difficulty making sense of all of them, it is completely natural. Talking with a doctor may help you get a better understanding of what is happening. 

Symptoms

The most common symptoms of heart failure include:

  • Fatigue
  • Swelling in the feet or legs
  • Weight gain
  • Shortness of breath

Causes and Risk Factors

The most common symptoms of heart failure include:

  • Fatigue
  • Swelling in the feet or legs
  • Weight gain
  • Shortness of breath

Coronary Artery Disease

Coronary artery disease (CAD), or coronary atherosclerosis, occurs when the blood vessels that supply the heart become clogged. Usually, coronary artery disease develops when cholesterol plaques build up and block blood flow into the heart. Since the heart is always working, it needs a constant supply of blood flow.

If blood flow is interrupted—even if it is only for a second—it can lead to significant pain and damage. This leads to damage to the heart muscle, known as ischemia or commonly known as a heart attack. A heart attack is a life-threatening emergency that requires immediate medical care.

There are many ways to treat coronary artery disease to help prevent serious events like a heart attack from ever happening. 

Symptoms

Coronary artery disease is often associated with pain or tightness in the chest, shoulders, and back. Often, the pain is worse with activities or exercise. Importantly, women may have different symptoms than men and may describe stomach pain or generalized fatigue.

The  symptoms of coronary artery disease may not develop until the disease has become significantly advanced. For this reason, working with your doctor to manage the risk factors for coronary artery disease is crucial. 

Causes and Risk Factors

Coronary artery disease is connected to the development of plaques—or blockages—in the walls of the arteries. These blockages act similar to a clog in the sink and prevent blood from flowing where it needs to go. Most plaques develop from elevated cholesterol that can coat the inside lining of blood vessels.

When cholesterol levels are high for a long period of time, then cholesterol can accumulate and form large blockages that can lead to ischemia. You can help prevent cholesterol buildup by:

  • Modifying your diet to have high levels of fiber and low levels of unhealthy fats
  • Limiting the consumption of red meat and salt in your diet
  • Exercising regularly, ideally 30 minutes a day

Heart Valve Disease

The valves of the heart help control blood flow and ensure it is moving through the heart effectively. When the valves become diseased, they can form leaks, and blood flow can become insufficient or regurgitant. Another form of valve disease can occur when the valve becomes stenotic and narrow, which limits how much blood can pass through.  

Symptoms

Valve disease can feel similar to other heart diseases. The most common symptoms people have are fatigue and shortness of breath. If you are having trouble going up stairs or feeling more tired after exertion, you may want to have your heart valves evaluated by a cardiologist. 

Causes and Risk Factors

Valvular disease can occur from several different causes. The most common is called calcification, which happens when the valve becomes stiff and hard. The aortic valve in particular is prone to calcification, which can limit its ability to allow blood to flow to the rest of the heart. As we age, our valves become calcified and more rigid.

Risk factors for valve disease include smoking and high blood pressure. Heart infections, covered in more detail below, can also cause valves to become diseased. 

Congenital Heart Disease

Congenital heart diseases are those that are present at birth. Many congenital heart diseases occur due to changes in heart structure that occur during development.

Congenital heart diseases are usually diagnosed shortly after birth, or within a few weeks of giving birth. Recent advances in prenatal care allow doctors to identify some congenital heart diseases during pregnancy, before the baby is even born. Most hospitals will screen babies for heart disease.

Symptoms

Babies born with congenital heart disease may have difficulty feeding and may tire easily. Babies can also have trouble getting enough oxygen, so their skin may have a blue discoloration, especially around the lips and on the toes. Sometimes swelling in the hands and feet can develop if the heart defect is severe enough. 

Causes and Risk Factors

The exact causes of most congenital heart diseases are not fully understood. We do know that many congenital heart diseases are the result of genetic mutations.

In addition, certain risk factors like alcohol or drug use during pregnancy can increase the risk of congenital heart disease. Some medications can also increase the likelihood of heart defects developing during pregnancy.

Cardiomyopathy

Cardiomyopathy occurs when the heart muscle becomes diseased and unable to pump effectively. In many cases the exact cause of cardiomyopathy is not identified.  The best way to think about cardiomyopathy is that it is a disease of the heart that does not fit into one of the above categories.

Heart failure and cardiomyopathy are closely related, however heart failure is more severe than cardiomyopathy.

There are different forms of cardiomyopathy based on how the heart muscle is functioning and whether the structure of the heart has changed due to the disease. Doctors will order tests like echocardiograms to identify structural changes in the heart and better understand your cardiomyopathy. 

Symptoms

Cardiomyopathy can lead to fatigue and tiredness with activities, as well as dizziness or lightheadedness. Some people will have difficulty lying flat in bed or going up stairs. Many people experience swelling in their feet and legs, especially when sitting for long periods of time.

Causes and Risk Factors

Most people with cardiomyopathy have genetic factors that put them at risk for the disease. Unfortunately, we still don’t know why some people develop cardiomyopathy. There is a lot of research investigating who is most at risk for developing this heart disease.

In some cases, significant physical or emotional stress can cause cardiomyopathy. This is termed “broken heart syndrome,” as it can happen after the loss of a loved one.

Heart Infections

Similar to other organs in the body, the heart is at risk for developing infections caused by bacteria, viruses, and other organisms. Heart infections can impact the ability of the heart to function properly.

Since the heart pumps blood to the rest of the body, an infection in the heart can put other organs at risk of becoming infected. However, prompt identification and treatment can help ensure these infections are under control.   

Infections in the heart are described based on where they occur:

  • Endocarditis is when the inside lining of the heart is infected.
  • Myocarditis is when the heart muscle is infected.
  • Pericarditis is when the outermost lining of the heart is infected.

In addition, the different valves of the heart can harbor infections which can lead to valvular heart disease. 

Symptoms

The symptoms of a heart infection are similar to other infections. You may experience:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Chills
  • General fatigue

Heart infections may also cause discomfort in the chest, difficulty lying down, or difficulty breathing. Some infections can cause discoloration of your nails or skin.

Causes and Risk Factors

People who undergo heart surgery or interventions to treat the heart are at the highest risk of infection. If you have an artificial heart valve, you are also at increased risk of developing a heart infection. In addition, drug use with injection drugs is linked to higher risks of heart infections.

When Should You Call for Immediate Medical Help?

Heart disease is a serious and sometimes life-threatening issue. Seek medical attention if you experience:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Sensation like your heart is racing in your chest

 If you think you may be having a medical emergency, contact 911. 


Frequently Asked Questions

What types of drugs are used for treating heart disease?

Numerous medications are used to support the heart and help it pump with heart disease. Types of medications include:

  • Beta blockers: These help to slow the heart down so it may pump effectively.
  • Hypertension drugs: These help reduce the pressure inside blood vessels so the heart can work more efficiently.
  • Statins: These help lower cholesterol levels in the body and prevent dangerous plaques from forming. 
  • Diuretics: Sometimes called “water pills,” these help reduce the fluid levels in your body and allow the heart to pump more effectively.

Many times your doctor will want you to take these medications in combination. While this may seem like a lot of pills, they have the best effect when used together. 

How many types of heart disease are there?

There are over 30 different distinct types of heart disease. Many of these diseases have their own subtypes, which can make these disorders even more complex. Since there are so many different heart diseases, there are specialists who only treat heart disorders such as cardiologists. 

What are the signs of an unhealthy heart?

When the heart is unhealthy, you may experience:

  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Swelling in your feet
  • Difficulty breathing

In some cases, other organs like the kidneys can become damaged if your heart is unhealthy. Healthcare professionals can evaluate your heart and other organs if you feel that you may have an unhealthy heart.  

A Word From Verywell

While this list reviews the most common heart diseases, there are many others not on this list. That said, many of the recommendations provided in this list can apply to other heart diseases.

A healthy lifestyle can make a significant impact on heart disease. Eating a well-balanced diet, maintaining a regular exercise schedule, and managing risk factors like high blood pressure can improve heart health. Talking with your doctor or a heart specialist such as a cardiologist is also a great way to learn more.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health 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. What is heart failure. Updated May 31, 2017.

  2. MedlinePlus. Heart attack. Updated May 4, 2021.

  3. American Heart Association. Problem: heart valve stenosis. Updated May 8, 2020. 

  4. Centers for Disease Control. Screening for critical congenital heart defects. Updated November 17, 2020.

  5. Cleveland Clinic. Cardiomyopathy. Updated May 2, 2020. 

  6. Cleveland Clinic. Broken heart syndrome. Updated February 2, 2021

  7. The Cleveland Clinic. Endocarditis. Updated April, 29, 2019.

  8. Harvard Health. When an infection invades the heart. August, 2020.