Heart disease is a term used to describe a number of conditions affecting the heart. This includes blood vessel diseases like coronary artery disease, arrhythmias (problems with the rhythm of the heart), and congenital heart defects, among many others.
Heart disease is also known as cardiovascular disease, but the latter is a term used for conditions involving narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can eventually cause chest pain, a heart attack and stroke. What people should be aware of is that most forms of heart disease can be prevented by making healthy lifestyle choices.
Types of Heart Disease and their Symptoms
There are numerous types of heart disease, but here are the more common ones:
Coronary Artery Disease:
Coronary artery disease develops when the coronary arteries become narrowed due to a buildup of plaque. This plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, and other substances found in the blood. Over many years, the plaque hardens and narrows the arteries. This limits the blood flow and oxygen to the heart muscle. When the heart needs more blood, such as during exercise or stress, chest pain (angina) can occur.
The pain is usually felt in the center of the chest and may spread to the shoulders, arms, neck, or jaw. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, nausea, fatigue, lightheadedness, or weakness. In severe cases, without treatment, a complete blockage of an artery can cause a heart attack. Coronary artery disease is usually treated with lifestyle changes, medications, and sometimes procedures like angioplasty or bypass surgery.
Enlarged Heart (Cardiomegaly):
An enlarged heart means the heart muscle has thickened and the heart chambers have dilated beyond their normal size. This makes it harder for the heart to pump blood effectively. Common causes include long-standing high blood pressure, previous heart attacks, heart valve disease, or cardiomyopathy. Over time, the pressure and volume overload cause the heart muscle to work harder, which leads to enlargement.
Symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue, swelling of the legs and ankles, irregular heartbeats, chest pain, and dizziness. Diagnosis is made through a physical exam, chest x-ray, echocardiogram, or MRI. Treatment focuses on managing the underlying cause with medications, procedures, or lifestyle changes. This may help prevent further enlargement and heart failure.
In this condition, the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) quiver rapidly instead of beating effectively. Impulses are sent irregularly and chaotically to the lower chambers, disrupting the heart’s normal rhythm. It is caused by abnormal electrical activity in the heart.
Symptoms vary; some experience palpitations, chest pain, or shortness of breath, while others feel nothing at all. However, it increases the risk of blood clots forming in the heart, which can travel to the brain and cause a stroke. Treatment focuses on rate or rhythm control with medications, lifestyle changes, cardioversion, ablation, or a pacemaker. Regular checkups are needed to monitor for complications.
Irregular Heart Rhythms:
Any heart rhythm that is too fast, too slow, or too irregular is considered an arrhythmia. Some common types include atrial fibrillation (described above) and ventricular tachycardia. Ventricular tachycardia occurs when the ventricles beat more than 100 times per minute. This is often caused by underlying heart disease but sometimes has no known cause.
Symptoms include palpitations, dizziness, chest pain, shortness of breath, and fatigue. These symptoms vary between people, and some may feel nothing at all. Diagnosis is made through EKG, Holter monitor, or event monitor testing.
Congenital Heart Disease:
This occurs due to the abnormal formation of the heart’s structure during early fetal development. It is one of the most common birth defects, affecting nearly 1% of live births. The specific defect depends on which part or parts of the heart were affected during development. Some defects, such as small holes between chambers, may close on their own, while others require intervention.
Symptoms vary greatly depending on the severity of the defect but may include shortness of breath, poor feeding, failure to thrive, bluish skin color, and abnormal heart sounds on an exam.
Some Common Signs and Symptoms of Heart Disease
There are different signs and symptoms for particular types of heart disease, but here are some that should not be ignored:
- Chest Discomfort: This is a classic sign of heart disease, but in some cases, it may also indicate digestive problems. If you have chest discomfort, it would be best to seek medical help immediately since it could be a sign that you are about to have a heart attack.
- Anxiety: Having a heart attack typically causes intense anxiety. People who have survived a heart attack usually say they experienced a sense of “impending doom” during the attack.
- Rapid or Irregular Pulse: It is normal to have a skipped heartbeat now and then, but an irregular or rapid pulse can be evidence of heart failure, a heart attack, or arrhythmia.
This is especially the case when it is accompanied by shortness of breath, dizziness, and weakness.
Causes and Risk Factors
Cardiovascular diseases are usually caused by correctable problems like lack of physical activity, an unhealthy diet, smoking, and being overweight. Take note that the causes differ from one heart disease to another.
Heart arrhythmias are usually caused by heart defects, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, smoking, and other lifestyle factors. Heart infections can be caused by parasites, bacteria, or viruses.
These factors play a significant role in causing Heart Disease. Here are the top risk factors for developing heart disease:
- Age: Getting older increases the risk of damaged and narrowed arteries or the weakening/thickening of the heart.
- Sex: Generally, men have a higher risk of developing heart disease. The risk of heart disease increases after a woman goes through menopause.
- Family History: Having a family history of heart disease increases a person’s risk of coronary artery disease, especially if it involves a parent who developed it before the age of 55 (for men) or 65 (for women).
- Smoking: Nicotine causes the blood vessels to constrict, and carbon monoxide can cause damage to their inner lining, making a person more likely to develop atherosclerosis.
- Poor Diet: A diet high in fat, salt, cholesterol, and sugar can increase the risk of developing heart disease.
Tests and Diagnosis
The first step to getting diagnosed is a doctor’s examination, which is usually followed by blood tests. To diagnose heart disease, a healthcare provider will typically perform a physical exam, ask about the patient’s medical history and symptoms, and order tests such as an electrocardiogram (ECG), echocardiogram, stress test, or cardiac catheterization. Blood tests may also be ordered to check for high cholesterol, inflammation, or other markers of heart disease.
It’s important to seek medical attention if you experience any symptoms of heart disease, such as chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, palpitations, or swelling in the legs and ankles. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent complications and improve outcomes for individuals with heart disease.
General Treatments and Medications
The treatments for heart disease depend on the particular condition. For example, heart infections are typically treated with antibiotics. Generally, the treatments for heart disease include the following:
- Lifestyle changes: Research suggests lifestyle changes can have a severe impact on heart disease. This includes following a low-fat and low-sodium diet, getting regular exercise, quitting smoking, and limiting or eliminating alcohol intake.
- Medications: Prescription medications can help control heart disease. A doctor can provide medication depending on the particular form of heart disease.
- Surgery or Medical Procedures: If medications and lifestyle changes are not enough, specific procedures or surgery may be needed depending on the particular heart disease and extent of damage to the heart.
Living a healthy lifestyle is very important when it comes to preventing or controlling heart disease. Of course, it is also imperative to be closely supervised by a physician. If you have a high risk of heart disease, you need to get a regular check-up. One of the best ways to prevent heart disease is by not smoking or quitting the nasty habit. This will also decrease your risk of developing many other health problems.
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 Holter Monitor: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/treatment-tests-and-therapies/holter-monitor
 Heart Health and Aging : https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/heart-health/heart-health-and-aging
 Family Health History of Heart Disease: https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/disease/fh/history_heart_disease.htm
 Heart Disease and Stroke: https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/heart-disease-stroke.htm
 Impact of Lifestyle Modifications on Cardiovascular Health: A Narrative Review: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10460604/