What is heart disease?

The term heart disease can describe a range of conditions that affect your heart health. Heart diseases can include coronary artery disease; heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias); and heart defects you’re born with (congenital heart defects), along with others.

Heart disease can be used interchangeably with the term “cardiovascular disease”. Conditions that involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack, chest pain (angina) or stroke are mostly referred to as cardiovascular disease. Other forms of heart disease also include heart conditions that affect your heart’s muscle, valves or rhythm.

What are the symptoms of heart disease?

Men and women may experience different kinds of cardiovascular disease symptoms. Women are likely to feel chest discomfort, nausea, fatigue and shortness of breath. However, men are more likely to feel chest pain. 

If the arteries are narrowed in your legs and arms the flow of blood is restricted so they could become painful, weak, numb and cold. Other symptoms can include: pain in the neck, jaw, throat, upper abdomen or back. 

Heart arrhythmias 

Heart arrhythmia is when the heart beats too fast or too slow or has an abnormal heartbeat. Symptoms of heart arrhythmias can include: 

  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Fluttering in your chest
  • Chest pain or discomfort. 

Congenital heart defects

Heart defects you are born with usually become evident soon after birth. Serious congenital heart defect symptoms could be:

  •  Swelling in the legs
  • Abdomen or around the eyes
  • Pale grey or blue skin color
  • Shortness of breath

Less serious congenital heart defects have different symptoms. These heart defects are not usually diagnosed until adulthood or later on in childhood as the symptoms are often not life threatening. These symptoms could be:

  • Easily getting short of breath or tired during exercise or activity
  • Swelling in the hands, ankles and feet. 

Dilated cardiomyopathy 

Dilated cardiomyopathy is when your heart has a weak muscle – this can cause heart disease. As the condition gets worse the symptoms could be:

  •  Breathlessness with exertion or rest
  • Swelling of the legs, ankles or feet
  • Fatigue
  • Irregular heartbeats
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fainting. 

Heart infections

Heart infections can cause heart disease such as endocarditis. The inner membrane that separates the chambers and valves of the heart is affected Symptoms can include:

  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Swelling in your legs or abdomen
  • Changes in your heart rhythm
  • Dry or persistent cough
  • Skin rashes and unusual spots.

 The inner membrane that separates the chambers and valves of the heart is affected. 

Valvular heart disease

A variety of conditions can affect the four valves in the heart ( aortic, mitral, pulmonary and tricuspid valves). In the heart, the valves direct blood flow and prevent the backflow of blood. 

Damaged valves may lead to narrowing (stenosis), leaking (regurgitation or insufficiency) or improper closing (prolapse). Symptoms will vary depending on which valve is damaged. However these could include: 

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Swollen feet or ankles
  • Chest pain 
  • Fainting (syncope)

When should you visit a doctor?

You should discuss concerns regarding your health with a doctor as heart disease is easier to treat if it is detected earlier. Reducing your risk of heart disease is especially important if your family has a history of heart disease. It is vital you seek emergency medical care if you are experiencing these symptoms of heart disease:

  •  Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Fainting   

What are the causes of heart disease?

Causes of cardiovascular disease

When there is a buildup of fatty plaques in your arteries it thickens and stiffens the artery walls. This can prevent blood flow through your arteries to your organs and tissues which is called atherosclerosis. The most common cause of cardiovascular disease is atherosclerosis. However, it can be caused by smoking, an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise and being overweight which are all correctable problems.

Causes of heart arrhythmia 

Some conditions can lead to heart arrhythmias. Here are some common causes:

  • Heart defects you’re born with (congenital heart defects)
  • Coronary artery disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Excessive use of alcohol or caffeine
  • Drug abuse
  • Stress
  • Some over-the-counter medications, prescription medications, dietary supplements and herbal remedies
  • Valvular heart disease

A fatal arrhythmia is unlikely to occur in a person with a healthy lifestyle and a healthy heart. Arrhythmias are more likely to occur in hearts that are diseased or deformed. This is due to the fact that the electrical impulses may not start or travel through the heart properly. 

Causes of congenital heart defects 

As the heart develops heart defects can also develop which changes the flow of blood in the heart. This usually happens while the baby is still in the womb. Your heart’s structure changes as you grow meaning heart defects can sometimes develop in adults. 

Causes of cardiomyopathy

There are different types of cardiomyopathy – a thickening or enlarging of the heart muscle. Dilated cardiomyopathy is the most common form of cardiomyopathy. It is usually when the left ventricle dilates. However, the cause is often unknown. 

It can be inherited from a parent but it could also be from things like infections, toxins and certain drugs. A heart attack can lead to reduced blood flow to the heart which can also cause dilated cardiomyopathy. 

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is usually inherited from your family. However, high blood pressure and aging can cause it to develop. It is when the heart muscle becomes unusually thick. 

When the heart muscle becomes less elastic and more rigid it is called restrictive cardiomyopathy. Some cancer treatments can cause this to happen.it can also be caused by the buildup of abnormal proteins or the excessive buildup of iron. Some diseases such as connective tissue disorders can cause it too. 

Causes of heart infections

When an irritant reaches your heart, it causes an infection such as endocarditis. This irritant could be a bacterium, virus, chemical or parasite. 

Causes of valvular disease 

Other conditions such as rheumatic fever, Infections (infectious endocarditis) and connective tissue disorders can damage the heart valves. Which can cause valvular disease. However, you can also be born with valvular disease. 

What are the risk factors of Heart Disease?

There are many different risk factors for developing heart disease. 

  • As you get older the risk of your arteries being damaged or narrowed increases. The risk of your heart muscle becoming weakened or thickened also increases. 
  • Generally, men have a greater risk of developing heart disease than women. Although, a woman’s risk does increase after menopause. 
  • If your family has a history of heart disease you are more likely to develop it. 
  • Smoking also increases your risk of heart disease and heart attacks. The carbon monoxide damages the inner lining of your blood vessels and the nicotine constricts them. This makes them more susceptible to atherosclerosis. 
  • The risk of cardiovascular disease is increased by some radiation therapies and chemotherapy drugs. 
  • Eating too much saturated fat, sugar, salt and cholesterol can increase the development of heart disease. High cholesterol levels can lead to an increase in the formation of plaques and atherosclerosis.
  • Your arteries can thicken and harden due to uncontrolled high blood pressure. This leads to your blood vessels narrowing which restricts blood flow. 
  • Diabetes and obesity increase the risk of heart disease.
  • Many forms of heart disease have been associated with a lack of exercise and physical activity. 
  • Arteries can be damaged due to stress that is not relieved. Unrelieved stress can also contribute to the worsening of other risk factors. 
  • You can be put at risk of heart disease if you have poor hygiene. Viral or bacterial infections put your heart at risk of becoming infected too. Heart disease has also been linked with poor dental health.  

What are the complications of heart disease and stroke?

When your heart can’t pump enough blood to meet your body’s needs, heart failure occurs, this is one of the most common causes of heart disease. The development of many forms of heart disease, including heart defects, cardiovascular disease, valvular heart disease, heart infections or cardiomyopathy can be as a result of heart failure.

Heart attacks are caused when a blood clot blocks a blood vessel to the heart. This can damage or destroy part of the heart. Heart attacks can be caused by atherosclerosis as well.

When the blood vessels to your brain are blocked or narrowed a stroke can be caused. Within just a few minutes of the stroke happening brain tissue begins to die therefore a stroke is classed as a medical emergency. 

A bulge in the wall of an artery is called an aneurysm, if this bursts it can lead to life-threatening internal bleeding. An aneurysm can occur anywhere in the body. 

When your extremities, usually your legs, don’t receive enough blood flow it can cause symptoms such as leg pain while walking. This is called peripheral artery disease and is often caused by atherosclerosis. 

An arrhythmia can sometimes cause sudden cardiac arrest. This is when you have a sudden unexpected loss of heart function, breathing and consciousness. This is a medical emergency and it is fatal if not treated immediately. 

 

Can you lower your risk of heart disease?

Your risk of heart disease will be decreased if you have a heart healthy diet. This means having a diet that consists of foods low in salt and saturated fats. Controlling other health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol can also help in preventing heart disease.  

Maintaining a healthy weight and exercising for at least thirty minutes a day can help prevent heart disease. Quitting smoking, having good hygiene and managing stress are all ways to prevent heart disease. However, some heart diseases cannot be prevented, such as heart defects. 

 

How can you check if you are at risk of heart disease?

Depending on what condition your doctor thinks you have will mean you may have to have different types of tests. A physical exam will be performed and the doctor will ask questions about your family and personal history. The tests that could be done include 

  • Blood tests
  • X-rays 
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG)
  • Holter monitoring
  • Echocardiogram
  • Stress test
  • Cardiac catheterization
  • Cardiac computerized tomography (CT) scan
  • Cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

 

How can heart disease be treated?

Treatments for heart disease vary depending on the disease you have. Medications and medical procedures or surgery and usually used. However, changes in lifestyle are very important too. This could be quitting smoking, eating healthier or improving personal hygiene. If you are worried about your risk of heart disease you can have a private ECG with Summerfield Healthcare. Visit the page to find out more.