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HomeHealth A-Z Heart Disease
Heart Disease
Heart Disease

An electrocardiogram, also called EKG or ECG, is a simple test that can show if there is damage to the heart or arteries by recording the electrical activity of the heart.

Heart Disease


Definition of Heart Disease

Heart disease refers to any number of conditions that affects the normal structure or function of the heart muscle, heart valves, or blood vessels of the heart.

Description of Heart Disease

Heart disease is a general term used to describe a disorder of the heart. Heart disease includes many conditions that affect the heart, from heart valves that do not work as they should, clogged blood vessels that restrict blood flow to the heart, to a heart muscle that does not beat normally or the swelling of the membrane surrounding the heart. Many conditions known as heart disease are also referred to as a cardiovascular disease (CVD), since they affect the heart (cardio) as well as the blood and blood vessels (vascular). Taken all together heart disease accounts for about half the deaths and is the number one cause of death in the US.

Some of the common forms of heart disease are:

Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) - Coronary heart disease is when damage occurs to the heart because of a reduced blood supply. The reduced flow of blood to the heart is usually due to atherosclerosis, which is when the coronary arteries (blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart) become narrow or clogged by a buildup of fat and cholesterol deposits. When the coronary arteries narrow, blood supply to the heart is reduced, leading to chest pain (angina) and possibly heart attack (myocardial infarction) or heart muscle death. Other terms used to describe this condition are coronary artery disease (CAD), cardiovascular disease (CVD), and ischaemic (or ischemic) heart disease (IHD).

Heart Valve Disease - Heart valve disease is when one or more valves in the heart are not working properly, putting an extra strain on the heart and making it unable to pump blood as it should. The heart valves can malfunction in two ways, by leaking (called regurgitation) or by not opening enough to let in an adequate amount of blood (called stenosis).

Arrhythmias - Arrhythmias are disturbances in the regular rate and rhythm of the heartbeat which may or may not be dangerous. Electrical irregularities in the nerve impulses affects the hearts natural pacemaker, causing the heart to beat too slow or too fast. If the heart rate is too high, usually over 110 a minute, it is called tachycardia. If the heart rate is too low, usually under 50 beats a minute, it is called bradycardia. Heart disease due to an arrhythmia can cause cardiac arrest.

Pulmonary Heart Disease - Pulmonary heart disease is the enlargement and eventual failure of the right ventricle of the heart due a disorder of the lungs. Pulmonary (a term used to refer to the lungs or respiratory system) heart disease is often caused by chronic bronchitis or emphysema.

Inflammatory Heart Diseases - Myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle, can be caused by a virus, radiation therapy, or certain drugs. Endocarditis, inflammation of the inner lining of the heart, is often caused by a bacterial infection. Pericarditis, inflammation of the outer membrane of the heart, often causes chest pain and fever.

Hypertensive Heart Disease - Hypertensive heart disease is heart damage caused by high blood pressure (hypertension). Hypertensive heart disease is the primary cause of illness and death from high blood pressure (hypertension).

Causes and Risk Factors of Heart Disease

The primary causes of heart disease are other health conditions, infectious diseases, or congenital defects. Health conditions leading to heart disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, atherosclerosis, obesity, and diabetes. Infectious diseases leading to heart disease include rheumatic fever and syphilis. Congenital heart disease is due to heart defects present at birth, which can either be inherited or caused by environmental factors while in the womb, such as the presence of the rubella virus.

The risk of developing heart disease also increases with age, family history of heart disease, lack of regular exercise, unhealthy diet, and smoking.

Symptoms of Heart Disease

Damage to the heart often occurs before there are any noticeable symptoms. Many people are not aware they have heart disease until they have a heart attack. A heart attack (myocardial infarction) occurs when the heart does not get oxygen and the heart muscle becomes damaged or dies. A heart attack is usually caused by blocked arteries due to atherosclerosis (narrowing of the blood vessels due to a buildup of fat and cholesterol). While some heart attacks are sudden and intense, most heart attacks start gradually with only mild pain or discomfort. Warning signs of a heart attack include chest pain, pressure or discomfort, pain or discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach, shortness of breath, cold sweats, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, or lightheadedness.

One of the common symptoms of heart disease is angina, the feeling of pain or pressure in the chest. Angina usually indicates coronary heart disease, heart disease caused by blockage in the arteries leading to a lack of blood supply to the heart.

Heart disease can also lead to cardiac arrest. The onset of a cardiac arrest is sudden and without warning. The victim immediately loses consciousness and stops breathing. Cardiac arrest is when the heart stops beating due to an arrhythmia and it is not able to pump blood and thus supply the body with the oxygen it needs to function. Cardiac arrest is not the same as a heart attack, but a heart attack can cause cardiac arrest. The situation is life threatening and treatment with a defibrillator and/or CPR is needed immediately.

Diagnosis of Heart Disease

There are several tests that a doctor uses to diagnose heart disease - an electrocardiogram, a stress test, x-rays, or cardiac catheterization. An electrocardiogram, also called EKG or ECG, is a simple test that can show if there is damage to the heart or arteries by recording the electrical activity of the heart. A stress test measures the electrical activity of the heart while walking on a treadmill. X-rays of the heart are sometimes taken before and after a stress test to show if there is enough blood entering the heart during exercise. A cardiac catheterization is a test in which dye is injected into the arteries around the heart thru a very long and thin tube and then x-rays are taken to show if there are any blocked arteries.

Treatment of Heart Disease

If left untreated, heart disease can lead to heart failure. Heart failure does not mean that the heart has stopped working but that it is not pumping blood like it should. When the heart is not pumping properly, fluid builds up in the body. Heart failure is also called congestive heart failure (CHF), congestive a term referring to the fluid buildup. Treatment can vary widely based on the reason for the heart disease and may include lifestyle changes in diet and exercise, medications, and/or surgery.

Prevention of Heart Disease

Many of the causes of heart disease can be prevented or controlled by adopting a healthy lifestyle. Steps to preventing heart disease include eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, avoiding secondhand smoke, and getting regular health screenings for blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It is also important to control high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes if those conditions are present.

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External Resources

American Heart Association - A National Voluntary Health Agency
Medline Plus - A Service of the US National Library of Medicine
WomenHeart - The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease

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