- A Visual Guide to Heart Disease
- Medical Illustrations of the Heart Image Collection
- Take the Heart Disease Quiz!
- Heart Disease FAQs
- Find a local Cardiologist in your town
- Heart (cardiovascular) disease definition and facts
- What is heart (cardiovascular) disease?
- Who is at risk for heart (cardiovascular) disease?
- What are the signs and symptoms of heart (cardiovascular) disease?
- What causes heart (cardiovascular) disease?
- How is heart (cardiovascular) disease diagnosed?
- What is the treatment for heart (cardiovascular) disease?
- What lifestyle changes can a person make to prevent further heart disease or heart attack?
- What is the medical treatment for heart (cardiovascular) disease?
- How many people have heart (cardiovascular) disease, and what is the prognosis?
- Can cardiovascular disease be prevented?
Quick GuideHeart Disease: Symptoms, Signs, and Causes
What is heart (cardiovascular) disease?
The heart is like any other muscle in body. It needs an adequate blood supply to provide oxygen so that the muscle can contract and pump blood to the rest of the body. Not only does the heart pump blood to the rest of the body, it also pumps blood to itself via the coronary arteries. These arteries originate from the base of the aorta (the major blood vessel that carries oxygenated blood from the heart) and then branch out along the surface of the heart.
When one or more coronary arteries narrow, it may make it difficult for adequate blood to reach the heart, especially during exercise. This can cause the heart muscle to ache like any other muscle in the body. Should the arteries continue to narrow, it may take less activity to stress the heart and provoke symptoms. The classic symptoms of chest pain or pressure and shortness of breath due to atherosclerotic heart disease (ASHD) or coronary artery disease (CAD) are called angina.
Should one of the coronary arteries become completely blocked -- usually due to a plaque that ruptures and causes a blood clot to form -- blood supply to part of the heart may be lost. This causes a piece of heart muscle to die. This is called a heart attack or myocardial infarction (myo=muscle + cardia=heart + infarction= tissue death).
Cardiovascular disease, for this article, will be limited to describing the spectrum of atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries that ranges from minimal blockage that may produce no symptoms to complete obstruction that presents as a myocardial infarction. Other topics, such as myocarditis, heart valve problems, and congenital heart defects will not be covered.
Who is at risk for heart (cardiovascular) disease?
There are risk factors that increase the potential to develop plaque within coronary arteries and cause them to narrow. Atherosclerosis (athero=fatty plaque + sclerosis=hardening) is the term that describes this condition. Factors that put people at increased risk for heart disease are:
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- High cholesterol
- Family history of heart problems, especially heart attacks and strokes
Since cardiovascular disease, peripheral artery disease, and stroke share the same risk factors, a patient who is diagnosed with one of the three has increased risk of having or developing the others.