What Is Heart Disease? Cardiovascular Health Problems Explained


02.05.2018

Having your blood pressure checked at the doctor’s office and hearing health professionals recommend getting enough cardiovascular exercise have made you well aware of how important it is to keep your heart healthy. But not everyone gives their ticker the attention it deserves. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US.

Educating yourself about cardiac issues can go a long way toward keeping you and your family healthy. Before we get too far, you first need to understand some basics.

What is heart disease?

You may hear the terms “heart disease,” “cardiac disease,” and “cardiovascular disease” all during a single medical appointment. The former two technically refer to any disease that affects your heart. According to Dr. Jay Cohn, author of Cardiovascular Health and Director of the Rasmussen Center for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention, the remaining term “is the result of a progressive biological process in the arteries and heart.”

"All three terms are referring to the same thing, which is the overall health of your heart and blood vessels."

In the end, you’re safe using whichever terminology you prefer. “All three terms are referring to the same thing, which is the overall health of your heart and blood vessels,” explains Dr. Kartikya Ahuja, a Cardiologist at Premier Cardiology Consultants.

5 Common types of heart disease

Now that you have a foundational understanding of what heart disease is, let’s explore some examples. Keep reading to learn more about a handful of the most common heart conditions.

1. Coronary heart disease

The most common type of heart disease in the US is coronary heart disease, and it occurs when plaque builds up inside the arteries that supply blood to your heart. Plaque build-up makes it more difficult for blood to circulate and may eventually lead to a heart attack.

The type of plaque buildup that leads to coronary heart disease can also contribute to stroke, which harms your brain. It can similarly result in peripheral artery disease, a condition that restricts blood flow to your legs or other body parts. This might not sound serious, but Dr. Ahuja says, “Patients can develop leg infections from the lack of blood flow, or worse — even require amputations.”

"Patients can develop leg infections from the lack of blood flow."

The good news is coronary heart disease and related problems are preventable. We’ll touch more on that a bit later.

2. Heart failure

Heart failure doesn’t mean that the crucial organ has ceased functioning, but that it isn’t working as well as it should. Dr. Gillian Goddard, an Endocrinologist at Park Avenue Endocrinology & Nutrition PLLC, says this means it isn’t able to pump as well as it should. This may happen due to coronary heart disease, but any type of heart damage, weakness, or stiffness can result in heart failure.

Congestive heart failure is a specific type that happens when blood backs up into other tissues, which can lead to swelling and fluid buildup in your lungs. It’s a serious condition that requires careful medical attention.

3. Arrhythmia

“The heart’s electrical system can be damaged or disrupted, leading to an irregular heartbeat,” Dr. Goddard explains. These abnormal beats are called arrhythmias, and they’re more common than you might expect. It’s possible your doctor will notice the irregular beat before you would on your own. While arrhythmias are often harmless, serious ones can be fatal.

"The heart’s electrical system can be damaged or disrupted, leading to an irregular heartbeat."

4. Valvular heart disease

Some people start to experience heart issues due to valve disease. “The heart’s valves can become stiff or leaky, sometimes requiring replacement,” Dr. Goddard explains. It’s also possible for them to become too narrow to allow enough blood to flow through. Your heart has four different valves and any of them could be subject to this type of damage.

5. Congenital heart disease

Though you typically hear about types of heart disease that develop later in life, congenital heart defects are present at birth. These structural problems can range from mild to severe. In extreme cases, infants require surgery soon after birth. You should also be aware you have an increased risk for certain medical conditions if you were born with a congenital heart defect.

How can you prevent heart disease?

Risk factors for heart disease are usually categorized in two ways: those we can change and ones we can’t control. Dr. Ahuja recommends you actively make smart choices to help manage blood pressure and cholesterol. “If patients can avoid obesity with a proper diet and exercise and avoid smoking, they minimize their probability of developing risk factors for future heart disease,” he says.

"Family history is especially important in predicting early heart disease and stroke."

Knowing your family history is another important step, according to Dr. Goddard. “Family history is especially important in predicting early heart disease and stroke.” While she suggests aggressively managing the same risk factors Dr. Ahuja highlighted, some medical professionals think maintaining heart health is a little more complicated than eating right and staying active.

“The current recommendation that lifestyle changes — diet and exercise — are effective treatments is not supported by any long-term trials designed to assess their beneficial effects,” Dr. Cohn says. While he certainly agrees that those who are biologically predisposed to cardiovascular problems need to manage their risk, he typically recommends medication for those in the early stages of heart disease. "Drugs have been documented to slow the biological disease process whereas diet and exercise have not,” he notes.

"Drugs have been documented to slow the biological disease process whereas diet and exercise have not."

Dr. Cohn encourages you to seek out testing to determine whether you’ve inherited the traits that put you at risk for cardiovascular disease. “At the University of Minnesota, we evaluate individuals with 10 noninvasive and nonradiologic tests that we perform in one hour,” he says. Dr. Cohn’s methods aren’t available everywhere, but his team hopes to bring the tests to more health centers in the future.

Keep your heart healthy

You can see that heart disease is a serious health issue. This doesn’t mean you should be afraid, but you want to make sure you do everything you can to maintain a healthy ticker. You should start by learning your family history and maintaining routine doctor appointments.

If heart disease does run in your family, make sure to discuss it with your primary care provider. He or she may end up referring you to a cardiologist if cardiovascular problems become an issue, because these specialists are trained to treat and manage heart conditions. Learn more about what these doctors do by reading our article, “What Is a Cardiologist? A Look at These Heart Health Heroes.”

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