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What is heart disease?

By Dignity Health Editorial Team September 13, 2019 Posted in: Article

Heart diseases causes one in every four deaths in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Tin Nguyen, MD, a cardiologist with Mercy Medical Group in Sacramento, adds, “Heart disease is the number one cause of death globally.”

We hear a lot about the danger of heart disease, but what exactly is heart disease?

Defining Heart Disease

Heart disease can refer to several conditions that affect how well your heart can pump blood. However, the leading cause of heart disease is atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaque and fat deposits in the heart’s arterial walls. Over time, this buildup gradually accumulates and reduces the blood flow, restricting oxygen from reaching the heart.

When this occurs, the heart can grow weaker until it can’t pump enough blood to other areas of the body. Eventually, the plaque can build up so much that it blocks the artery entirely, resulting in a heart attack.

The most common symptoms of heart disease include:

  • Chest pain or a feeling of tightness or pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling of legs or feet
  • Pain radiating through the upper abdomen, back, neck, jaw, or throat
  • Weakness or numbness in arms or legs
  • An unusual heart rate such as a fluttering sensation or a racing or slow heartbeat
  • Fainting or dizziness
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Confusion

Those with heart disease or a heart-related incident may also experience a sensation of numbness or tingling in the shoulders, jaw, arms, or neck, as well as shortness of breath while lying down, during activity, or while at rest.

If you ever experience chest pain, shortness of breath, or fainting, you should seek emergency medical care.

Types of Heart Conditions

Dr. Nguyen explains that specific symptoms can help identify the type of heart condition. For example:

  • Coronary artery disease is a narrowing of the coronary arteries in which blood and oxygen to the heart become restricted or cut off. This can cause shortness of breath, chest pain (also known as angina), anxiety, physical pain in the jaw, neck, arms, and back, and an eventual heart attack.
  • Arrhythmia is a condition in which the heart beats out of rhythm. Arrhythmia can be caused by genetics, heart disease, injury, or infection, and can cause trouble breathing, dizziness, or fainting, but sometimes has no visible symptoms other than the abnormal heart beat.
  • Heart failure occurs when the heart can no longer pump blood to other parts of the body or cannot fill with a sufficient amount of blood to function properly. When heart failure occurs, it can cause fluid buildup in various parts of the body, such as the ankles, abdomen, legs, feet, and neck. Other symptoms include difficulty breathing, frequent urination, fatigue, and a cough that increases when lying flat.
  • Cardiomyopathy is caused by a weakened heart muscle. Mild cardiomyopathy isn’t always symptomatic, but as it progresses, it can have similar symptoms to coronary artery disease.
  • Endocarditis is an infection in your heart membrane. Symptoms include heart rhythm changes, fever, shortness of breath, swelling, dry cough, and skin rashes.
  • Congenital heart defects are heart conditions you are born with. In infants, symptoms can include difficulty breathing during feeding, pale grey or blue skin, and swelling around the eyes. Less severe heart defects can also cause shortness of breath during exercise and swelling later in life.

If you are experiencing symptoms associated with any of these conditions, Dr. Nguyen says the best course of action is to talk to your doctor. It is an especially good idea to contact your doctor if you already have heart disease and develop new symptoms, or if your existing symptoms happen more often or get worse.

Heart disease is easiest to treat when it is detected before symptoms become severe; it’s important to be proactive about reaching out to your physician if you have any questions or concerns about your heart health.

Most heart disease is the product of both genetics and lifestyle choices. As Nguyen explains, “Genetics can influence the risk of [heart disease],” but “Even though genes control every aspect of the heart, from the strength of the blood vessels to the way the cells communicate, lifestyle choices still have a big influence on how the disease progress.”

Recovering from Heart Disease

There is hope if you are diagnosed with some form of heart disease. “Some heart disease has a high probability of being cured once diagnosed,” says Dr. Nguyen. Coronary artery disease, for instance, can often be reversed by making major lifestyle changes.

For example, quitting smoking, eating a low-cholesterol, vegetable-rich diet, exercising regularly, and integrating stress management tools into your life can all make an impact on heart health.

Most people diagnosed with some form of heart disease do have it for the rest of their life. Dr. Nguyen says, “Living with heart disease can be challenging, and working closely with your heart doctor is very important to give your heart the best opportunity to get better and reduce the risk of future adverse events.” However, the changes mentioned above can help you manage your heart disease.

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