What is Heart Disease?

Heart disease, also commonly known as cardiovascular disease, is a term used to describe heart-related conditions.

Conditions such as heart attack, chest pain, or stroke are related to the buildup of plaque in the arteries, and other heart conditions affect the heart's muscle, valves, or heart rhythm.

Men and people over 55 are at greater risk of developing heart disease. Other risk factors of heart disease include family history, diabetes, drinking too much alcohol, eating an unhealthy diet, being overweight, high-stress levels, and not exercising.

If left untreated, heart disease could lead to heart failure, heart attack, stroke, aneurysm, peripheral artery disease, sudden cardiac arrest.

Causes of heart disease

Heart disease typically is caused by plaque buildup in the arteries and blood vessels around the heart. When plaque builds up, important nutrients cannot reach your heart. Plaque is a substance composed of cholesterol, fatty materials, and minerals. Over time, it accumulates in the lining of the arteries that have been damaged from years of smoking or high blood pressure.

Risk factors for heart disease

Most people with heart disease have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or are smokers.

Other factors that increase your risk of developing heart disease include:

  • Age. You are at a higher risk of developing heart disease as you age.
  • Sex. Men are more likely to develop heart disease. Women are at higher risk after menopause.
  • Genetics. If you have a partner or first-degree relative who developed heart disease at a younger age, you are more likely to develop it.
  • Eating an unhealthy diet. Especially a diet high in fat, sugar, salt, or cholesterol.
  • Diabetes.
  • Obesity (or being overweight).
  • Lack of physical activity.
  • Drinking too much alcohol.
  • Stress.
  • Clinical depression.

Symptoms of heart disease

Heart disease is often undiagnosed until a person experiences symptoms of a heart condition such as a heart attack, arrhythmia, or heart failure. Signs and symptoms for each of these heart conditions vary.

Symptoms include:

  • Heart attack. Chest discomfort or pain, pain in the neck or upper back, indigestion, heartburn, nausea, extreme fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath.
  • Arrhythmia. Abnormal heartbeats.
  • Heart failure. Fatigue, shortness of breath, swollen feet, ankles, legs, abdomen, or neck.

Complications from heart disease

If left untreated, heart disease can lead to a variety of serious conditions such as:

  • Heart failure.
  • Heart attack.
  • Stroke.
  • Aneurysm.
  • Peripheral artery disease.
  • Sudden cardiac arrest.

Diagnosing heart disease

Your doctor will perform a thorough physical exam, review your full medical history, and order diagnostic testing.

Diagnostic tests may include:

  • Blood tests.
  • Chest X-ray.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG).
  • Holter monitoring.
  • Echocardiogram.
  • Stress test.
  • Cardiac catheterization.
  • CT scan.
  • Cardiac magnetic resonance imaging.

Treatment for heart disease

Treatment for heart disease will differ based upon the type of heart disease you have. In many cases, medications are used as first-line therapy. If medications are not effective, surgery may be recommended.

When to Seek Treatment

If you have chest pain, shortness of breath, or faint from unexplained causes, you should seek immediate emergency care.

If you have any symptoms associated with heart disease, schedule an appointment with a cardiologist. The early you develop a treatment plan, the better your chance of successfully treating heart disease.

If you are at risk for heart disease, schedule an appointment with your primary care physician to determine what you can do to lower your risk of developing heart disease.

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