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Understanding Heart Disease -- the Basics

What Is Heart Disease?

The human heart is built for amazing endurance, but like any other part of the body, it is vulnerable to breakdowns. 

Heart problems vary widely in their nature and severity. They may be transient or chronic, slow-developing or sudden, merely inconvenient or fatal.

Understanding Heart Disease

Find out more about heart disease:

Basics

Symptoms

Diagnosis and Treatment

Some types of heart disease, closely linked to diet and lifestyle choices, are preventable; others are due to heredity, infections, or other uncontrollable factors. 

One out of every three Americans will ultimately die of heart disease -- the daily toll is approximately 2,500 people. Fortunately, the death rate is declining steadily (by about 40% since 1960) because of improved medical care and widespread public education about risk factors.

the basics on heart disease

The following is a list of the most common types of heart disease:

Coronary Artery Disease

Coronary artery disease, the most common of all heart problems, is characterized by blockages in the coronary arteries -- the arteries that supply blood to the heart -- that result in a reduction in blood flow to the heart muscle, depriving it of vital oxygen. Usually, the disease stems from atherosclerosis, a condition sometimes called hardening of the arteries.

Coronary heart disease can result in painful episodes of angina (chest pain) or a heart attack or, in the worst case, sudden death. Coronary artery disease can also cause heart failure if there has been a heart attack that damaged the heart muscle.

There are many things that are associated with a higher risk of developing coronary disease:

  • Family history of coronary heart disease
  • Genetics
  • Age -- For both men and women, the likelihood of heart disease increases significantly after the age of 65. The risk rises sharply in women after menopause.
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Smoking
  • Abnormal cholesterol levels -- high blood levels of LDL "bad" cholesterol or low levels of HDL "good" cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Stress

Coronary artery disease does not discriminate by gender.  Although men tend to develop coronary heart disease at an earlier age than women, women are just as likely to die from it.

basics on heart disease

Heart Arrhythmias

Arrhythmias are disturbances in the heart's normal beating pattern. The irregularities occur in many forms, each with its own potential causes and treatments. Serious arrhythmias are a frequent consequence of other heart ailments, but may also occur independently.

 

Heart Failure

The term heart failure does not mean that the heart has "failed" or stopped working. Rather, it means that the heart does not pump blood as well as it should to meet the body's needs. Heart failure is usually caused by coronary artery disease, but it can also be caused by thyroid disease, high blood pressure, or heart muscle disease (cardiomyopathy), among other conditions.

 

Heart Valve Disease

The heart has four valves (the pulmonary, mitral, tricuspid, and aortic) that open and close to direct blood flow between the heart's four chambers, the lungs, and connected blood vessels. A defective valve may fail either to open properly, obstructing blood flow (stenosis or obstruction), or to close properly, allowing blood leakage. Congenital heart disease and various infections, including rheumatic fever, are among the causes of valve disorders.

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