What is Heart Disease?

Heart disease is any affliction that impairs the structure or function of the heart. You may hear such terms as atherosclerotic and hypertensive diseases, congenital heart disease, rheumatic heart disease, and other conditions.  You can find definitions for these and other related terms in the Glossary or view illustrations of these and other heart-related conditions.

The most common type of heart disease, coronary artery disease, occurs when the arteries that supply blood to the heart become hardened and narrowed from fatty plaque buildup on the artery walls, a process called atherosclerosis.  Plaque buildup can cause blood clots to form that block the arteries, can narrow the arteries so that less blood can flow to the heart (experienced as chest pain or angina), or can completely block the arteries and the flow of blood to the heart, causing a heart attack  (myocardial infarction) and possible death.  Lack of blood flow to the heart is referred to as ischemia (localized tissue anemia due to obstruction of the inflow of arterial blood).  Over time, coronary artery disease can also weaken the heart muscle and contribute to heart failure (inability of the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body the way that it should), or to arrhythmias (changes in the normal rhythm of the heartbeats).  In the literature, coronary artery disease, coronary heart disease, ischemic heart disease, and heart disease are often used interchangeably.  

Signs & Symtoms

If you see or experience signs of a heart attack, call 911 immediately.

Warning signs of heart attack include:

* Tightness in the chest

* Pain in the arm

* Shortness of breath

* Women, in particular, may also experience indigestion and nausea, fatigue, rapid heart beat and shoulder pains

In some cases, no noticeable warning signs will accompany a heart attack.

Risk factors

Heart disease is primarily a disease of lifestyle, and can be prevented through risk factor awareness and modification. You cannot impact such risk factors as age, race, gender or family history, but you can impact:

* Tobacco use

* Physical Inactivity

* Poor Nutrition

* Stress levels

For more information on risk factors and how to control your risk, visit the American Heart Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Visit Life's Simple 7 to complete a personal risk assessment.