Heart Disease 101: Understanding Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Carolin Schneider, MD

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Heart disease is a term that’s used to refer to a variety of heart conditions, and several different diseases and conditions can be considered part of heart disease. In the United States, heart diseases are the leading cause of death. It’s likely that, sometime in your life, you or someone you know will be impacted by heart disease, which is just one reason why it’s important to learn more about the risks of heart disease.

Fortunately, different treatments and preventative steps can also help people with heart disease live longer, healthier lives. Get started understanding the basics of heart disease by learning about what it is, how it affects a person’s health and what you can do to lower your risk.

What Is Heart Disease?

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The heart is a muscular organ that pumps blood through your body. It’s located just to the left side of your chest and divided into right and left sections. The right side of your heart is where the right atrium and ventricle are located. These structures are responsible for collecting blood and pumping it into your lungs via the pulmonary arteries.

The oxygen-rich blood that comes out of your lungs flows back into your heart’s left side and is then pumped through a large artery called the aorta. When your heart beats, it contracts and then relaxes, and it relies on electrical impulses to beat properly. The heart is a complex organ that requires all of its parts to be functioning correctly in order to keep you healthy.

Heart disease refers to conditions and diseases that affect the heart, including:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Arrhythmias (heart rhythm disruptions)
  • Infections of the heart
  • Heart defects
  • Angina (chest pain)
  • Conditions that affect heart muscles

Cardiovascular diseases include all heart diseases, along with conditions like stroke, blocked blood vessels and other diseases that affect veins. Although there are many forms of heart disease, some of them can be successfully treated or even prevented when you make simple, healthy lifestyle choices.

Types and Symptoms of Heart Disease

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When there’s a problem within any of the heart’s structures, it can result in the development of heart disease. Typical forms of heart disease include the following:

  • Coronary artery disease is a common form of heart disease in which the blood vessels are narrowed or blocked. This interferes with normal blood flow and stops the heart, brain and other body areas from receiving adequate amounts of blood.
  • Heart arrhythmias are abnormal heartbeat rhythms that occur if the heart beats too quickly, too slowly or in an irregular pattern.
  • Congenital heart defects are defects of the heart that occur before birth. Major heart defects are often diagnosed shortly after birth. Your doctor may not diagnose minor heart defects until later in childhood or even in adulthood.
  • Cardiomyopathy is a condition that occurs when the muscle in the heart becomes thick or stiff. Symptoms may not develop until the condition progresses to an advanced stage.
  • Heart infections that affect the tissues around or in the heart can develop at any time.

Symptoms of heart disease can vary depending on the specific type of disease that’s present. General symptoms of heart disease include:

  • Angina (chest pain)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in the arms or legs
  • Numbness in the arms
  • Weakness of the legs
  • Cold sensation in the extremities
  • A fluttering feeling in the chest
  • Racing heartbeat (tachycardia)
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Tiring quickly during exercise or activity
  • Becoming short of breath during activity
  • Swelling of the legs, ankles or feet
  • Bloated stomach
  • Fatigue

Causes of and Risk Factors for Heart Disease

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There are specific risk factors that increase a person’s chances of developing heart disease. Common risk factors include:

  • Advancing age
  • Being assigned male at birth
  • Family history of heart disease
  • Smoking
  • Eating a poor diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • High cholesterol levels
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • High levels of stress
  • Poor hygiene
  • Poor dental health

There’s also a variety of causes of heart disease. The underlying cause may depend on the specific type of heart disease present. Often, there may be more than one reason for heart disease to develop. Common reasons for heart disease include:

  • Fatty plaque buildup in the arteries (atherosclerosis)
  • Thickening and stiffening of the arteries
  • Restricted blood flow to organs and tissues
  • Poor diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Heart defects
  • Coronary artery disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Drug abuse
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Stress
  • Certain medications or herbal remedies
  • Certain dietary supplements

Heart defects can develop in a fetus before birth. The heart starts to form roughly one month after conception. During this time, heart defects can occur. Some heart defects are genetic, while others can result from certain medical conditions or certain medications.

Heart infections can be caused by an irritant that enters the heart muscle. Common irritants are bacteria, viruses, parasites and chemicals. When bacteria enter the bloodstream, they can travel to the heart and cause infection. Regular everyday activities can cause bacteria to enter the bloodstream, such as eating or brushing your teeth.

Diagnosing Heart Disease

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There are several diagnostic tests available for detecting heart disease. The type of test you require will depend on the type of heart disease your doctor is checking for. Your doctor will perform a thorough physical examination regardless of the type of heart disease they think you might have. Additional tests that your doctor may order include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Blood tests
  • Chest X-ray
  • ECG (electrocardiogram)
  • Holter monitoring
  • Echocardiogram
  • Cardiac catheterization
  • Heart biopsy
  • CT scan
  • MRI

Treatment Options for Heart Disease

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Treatments that are recommended for heart disease depend on the specific diagnosis and type of heart disease that’s present. In addition to any particular remedies available for certain types of heart disease, some standard treatment options can improve almost all kinds of heart disease. These treatments include:

  • Healthy lifestyle changes
  • Medications
  • Medical or surgical procedures
  • The use of medical devices

There’s also a variety of foods that can be effective in treating certain types of heart disease, including:

  • Flaxseed
  • Oats
  • Oat bran
  • Omega-3 fatty acids

Because even some natural treatments, including foods, might not work for everyone based on their individual health needs, it’s essential to speak with your doctor or healthcare provider before starting treatment with any alternative medicine remedies.

You can significantly improve heart disease with some simple lifestyle changes. By quitting smoking, exercising more and eating a healthy diet, you can take steps to reverse damage caused by heart disease and prevent your condition from worsening over time. It’s essential to keep your blood pressure and cholesterol at healthy levels and have them checked regularly. By maintaining a healthy weight and managing stress effectively, you can improve your heart health.

Resource Links:

https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5331469/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK11767/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6011508/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22593934/

https://www.nejm.org/doi/10.1056/NEJMra035098