What Is Heart Disease?

Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States. But what exactly is heart disease?

Also called cardiovascular disease or coronary heart disease, "heart disease" is a broad term that refers to a number of health problems that reduce the ability of the heart and/or blood vessels to work properly. Because the heart is at the center of the cardiovascular system, pumping blood, oxygen and nutrients to all of the body's cells (via the blood vessels), any health problem that affects its ability to do that job is problematic. When certain health conditions make it harder for the heart or blood vessels to work properly, other vital organs (such as the brain or kidneys) suffer, too, as well as a person's quality of life, well-being and energy levels. Eventually, if heart disease gets bad enough, the heart or blood vessels stop working altogether, resulting in death.

There are many health problems that fall under the umbrella of heart disease, and each one affects the heart—and the body—differently. But they all have one thing in common: they disrupt the heart from doing its job as efficiently as possible. Some types of heart disease are congenital and cannot be prevented; many others are preventable and even reversible (or at least treatable) through medical and lifestyle interventions; the latter is what we'll focus on in this article.

Types of Heart Disease
  • Coronary artery disease (CAD), the most common type of heart disease, is the leading cause of heart attacks. When you have CAD, your arteries become hard and narrow (a condition known as atherosclerosis) due to a buildup of cholesterol and fat inside the arteries (known as plaque). Blood has a hard time getting to the heart, so the heart does not get all the blood it needs. Without adequate blood flow, the heart becomes starved of oxygen and vital nutrients. CAD can lead to:
    • Angina is chest pain or discomfort that happens when the heart does not get enough blood. It may feel like a pressing or squeezing pain, often in the chest, but sometimes the pain is in the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back. It can also feel like indigestion (upset stomach). Angina is not a heart attack, but having angina means you are more likely to have a heart attack.
    • A heart attack. A heart attack occurs when an artery is severely or completely blocked, and the heart does not get the blood it needs for more than 20 minutes. A heart attack is a life threatening emergency that can result in death, so it's important to understand the signs and symptoms of a heart attack so that you can react appropriately in the case of an emergency.
  • Heart failure is not the same thing as a heart attack, nor does it mean that the heart stops. Heart failure occurs when the heart is not able to pump blood through the body as well as it should. This means that other organs, which normally get blood from the heart, do not get enough blood. This can result in shortness of breath, swelling in the feet, ankles and legs, and extreme tiredness.
  • Heart arrhythmia (or dysrhythmia) is a change or abnormality in the beat of the heart. While the heart normally beats at a steady rhythm of 60-100 times per minute, sometimes it gets out of rhythm—beating erratically, too slowly, or too fast. Most people have experienced arrhythmia like this at some time, and these occasional changes in heartbeat—often brought on by adrenaline surges or intense an intense emotional response—are often harmless in these cases. But if your heart flutters and other symptoms such as dizziness or shortness of breath occur, call 911 right away.
  • Stroke occurs when part of the brain doesn't get enough blood due to a clot (known as an ischemic stroke) or a burst blood vessel (a hemorrhagic stroke). If blood flow is stopped for longer than a few seconds, the brain cannot get enough blood and oxygen, brain cells can die, resulting in permanent damage to the brain.
  • Vascular disease (blood vessel disease) is any condition that affects the circulatory system (arteries and blood vessels). Three common types of vascular disease include:
    • Peripheral vascular disease occurs when blood vessels outside of the heart develop atherosclerosis (a build-up of plaque) inside their walls, narrowing the arteries and resulting in ischema (inadequate blood flow to the body's tissues). This can lead to angina, heart attack, stroke, gangrene or loss of a limb, and renal artery disease.
    • An aneurysm is an abnormal budge that can form in the wall of any blood vessel. Most commonly, these occur in the main blood vessel leaving the heart (the aorta). While a small aneurysm may not threaten your health, having an aneurysm puts a person at an increased risk for related complications, including clots and plaque deposits, pain, or a rupture at the site of the aneurysm.
    • Blood clots can be caused by many factors, including conditions such as congestive heart failure, which slows blood flow. Blood clots can lead to a variety of complications such as deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism.
Other types of cardiovascular disease include heart valve disease, congenital heart disease (a defect in the heart or blood vessels that occurs before birth), cardiomyopathies (heart muscle disease, such as an enlarged heart), pericarditis (a rare inflammation of the lining that surrounds the heart, usually caused by an infection), and aorta disease.

Because heart disease is the leading cause of death in America, it's important to learn how you can strengthen your heart and prevent heart disease through a variety of healthy lifestyle habits. Even people who already have heart disease can live long and healthy lives by incorporating many of the same heart-healthy habits and following the medical plan prescribed by their doctor.
Web MD. "Heart and Cardiovascular Diseases," accessed March 2011. WebMD.com.

Web MD. "The Heart and Vascular Disease," accessed March 2011. WebMD.com