Heart disease

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Heart disease is one of a number of different diseases which afflict the heart. The most common heart diseases are:

Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)

Coronary artery disease is caused by plaque buildup in the wall of the arteries that supply blood to the heart (called coronary arteries). Plaque is made up of cholesterol deposits. Plaque buildup causes the inside of the arteries to narrow over time. This process is called atherosclerosis.

Too much plaque buildup and narrowed artery walls can make it harder for blood to flow through your body. When your heart muscle doesn’t get enough blood, you may have chest pain or discomfort, called angina. Angina is the most common symptom of CAD.

Over time, CAD can weaken the heart muscle. This may lead to heart failure, a serious condition where the heart can’t pump blood the way that it should. An irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia, also can develop.

Heart Attack Signs and Symptoms

There are five major signs and symptoms of a heart attack in women and men. Click on the image to view a larger version.

The five major symptoms of a heart attack are

  • Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, or back.
  • Feeling weak, light-headed, or faint.
  • Chest pain or discomfort.
  • Pain or discomfort in arms or shoulder.
  • Shortness of breath.

Other symptoms of a heart attack could include unusual or unexplained tiredness and nausea or vomiting. Women are more likely to have these other symptoms.

Call 9-1-1

If you notice the symptoms of a heart attack in yourself or someone else, call 9-1-1 immediately. The sooner you get to an emergency room, the sooner you can receive treatment to prevent total blockage and heart muscle damage or reduce the amount of damage. At the hospital, health care professionals can run tests to determine whether a heart attack is occurring and decide the best treatment.

In some cases, a heart attack requires cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or electrical shock (defibrillation). Bystanders trained to use CPR or a defibrillator may be able to help until emergency medical personnel arrive.

Remember, the chances of surviving a heart attack are greater the sooner emergency treatment begins.

Diagnosing CAD

To find out your risk for CAD, your health care team may measure your blood pressure, cholesterol, and sugar levels. Being overweight, physical inactivity, unhealthy eating, and smoking tobacco are risk factors for CAD. A family history of heart disease also increases your risk for CAD. If you’re at high risk for heart disease or already have symptoms, your doctor can use several tests to diagnose CAD.

Tests for CAD

Test What it Does
ECD or EKG (electrocardiogram) Measures the electrical activity, rate, and regularity of your heartbeat.
Echocardiogram Uses ultrasound (special sound wave) to create a picture of the heart.
Exercise stress test Measures your heart rate while you walk on a treadmill. This helps to determine how well your heart is working when it has to pump more blood.
Chest X-ray Uses x-rays to create a picture of the heart, lungs, and other organs in the chest.
Cardiac catheterization Checks the inside of your arteries for blockage by inserting a thin, flexible tube through an artery in the groin, arm, or neck to reach the heart. Health care professionals can measure blood pressure within the heart and the strength of blood flow through the heart’s chambers as well as collect blood samples from the heart or inject dye into the arteries of the heart (coronary arteries).
Coronary angiogram Monitors blockage and flow of blood through the coronary arteries. Uses X-rays to detect dye injected via cardiac catheterization.

Heart Disease Facts

As plaque builds up in the arteries of a person with heart disease, the inside of the arteries begins to narrow, which lessens or blocks the flow of blood. Plaques can also rupture (break open) and when they do a blood clot can form on the plaque, blocking the flow of blood.


Heart Disease in the United States

  • About 610,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year–that’s 1 in every 4 deaths.
  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. More than half of the deaths due to heart disease in 2009 were in men.1
  • Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the most common type of heart disease, killing over 370,000 peopleannually.
  • Every year about 735,000 Americans have a heart attack. Of these, 525,000 are a first heart attack and 210,000 happen in people who have already had a heart attack.

Reducing Your Risk for CAD

If you have CAD, your health care team may suggest the following steps to help lower your risk for heart attack or worsening heart disease:

  • Lifestyle changes, such as eating a healthier (lower sodium, lower fat) diet, increasing physical activity, and quitting smoking.
  • Medications to treat the risk factors for CAD, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, an irregular heartbeat, and low blood flow.
  • Surgical procedures to help restore blood flow to the heart.
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