What is Heart Disease?

Heart disease is a broad term used to describe a range of diseases that affect the heart. The various diseases that fall under the umbrella of heart disease include diseases of the blood vessels (such as coronary artery disease), heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias), heart infections, and heart defects a person is born with (congenital heart defects). The following conditions fall under the broad category of heart disease.

What You Need to Know

By Jenni Frankenberg Veal

Valvular Heart Disease: Valvular heart disease occurs when any of the heart’s four valves—the aortic, mitral, pulmonary or tricuspid—do not function correctly. For example, a valve may leak or not open or close properly. Heart valve problems may be present at birth or caused by a number of conditions including infections, heart attacks or heart disease damage. Some valve problems are minor and do not need treatment. Others might require medicine, medical procedures or surgery to repair or replace the valve.

Cardiomyopathy: Cardiomyopathy refers to diseases of the heart muscle in which the heart becomes enlarged, thick or rigid. It is most often from an unknown cause. A person in the early stages of cardiomyopathy may have no symptoms, and some people live long healthy lives with cardiomyopathy. However, the condition makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood and can lead to serious complications including heart failure, abnormal heart rhythms, fluid buildup in the lungs or legs or inflammation of the heart lining.

Congenital Heart Defects: Congenital heart defects are heart defects that a person is born with. Defects may involve the wall of the heart, the valves of the heart and the arteries or veins near the heart. Less serious congenital heart defects are often not diagnosed until later in childhood, or even during adulthood. Treatment depends on the severity of the case and may include medicines, surgery and other medical procedures, including heart transplants.

Heart Infections: Heart infections occur when a bacteria or virus reaches the heart muscle. Types of infections include pericarditis, which affects the tissue surrounding the heart (pericardium); myocarditis, which affects the muscular middle layer of the walls of the heart (myocardium); and endocarditis, which affects the inner membrane that separates the chambers and valves of your heart (endocardium). People with healthy hearts have a very slight chance of getting an infection. The condition is more common among people with artificial or damaged heart valves or congenital heart defects.

Cardiovascular Disease: The term “heart disease” is often used interchangeably with “cardiovascular disease.” Cardiovascular disease is caused by narrowed, blocked or stiffened blood vessels that prevent the heart, brain or other parts of the body from receiving enough blood, which can lead to chest pain (angina), a heart attack or stroke.

Angina/Chest Pain: Nearly 7 million people in the United States suffer from angina which occurs equally among men and women. Angina is caused when stable plaques in the heart’s arteries reduce blood flow to the heart. It can also be a symptom of coronary microvascular disease, which affects the heart’s smallest coronary arteries. Angina can be a recurring problem or a sudden, acute health concern. It can be hard to distinguish from the pain or discomfort associated with a heart attack.

Heart Attack: Most heart attacks are caused by atherosclerosis, or the buildup of plaque in the arteries. Plaque in the arteries can rupture, causing a blood clot to form. In a heart attack, this clot blocks blood flow through a coronary artery. If the blockage isn’t treated quickly, the portion of heart muscle fed by the artery begins to die and healthy heart tissue is replaced with scar tissue. Heart attacks are a leading killer of both men and women in the United States. However, they can often be prevented if precautions are taken to live a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Stroke: A stroke occurs when a blood clot or ruptured blood vessel interrupts blood flow to an area of the brain. A lack of oxygen and glucose flowing to the brain leads to the death of brain cells and brain damage, often resulting in impaired speech, movement and/or memory. About 87 percent of all strokes are ischemic, occurring when the arteries are blocked by blood clots or by the gradual build-up of plaque. Although some people recover completely from strokes, more than two-thirds of survivors will have some type of disability. However, like heart attacks, strokes can often be prevented if precautions are taken to live a heart-healthy lifestyle.