We hear a lot about heart disease – after all, it’s the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S. But the term actually refers to a range of conditions affecting your heart and blood vessels.
Heart disease can affect your body in a variety of ways, including narrowing your blood vessels, causing your heart valves to malfunction and creating irregular heart rhythms. Different types of heart disease have varied causes. But the range of risk factors includes:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Type 2 diabetes
- Family history of heart disease
- Limited or no exercise
- Eating too much sodium, sugar and fat
- Drinking too much alcohol
Let’s look at the more common types of heart disease.
Coronary Artery Disease
Coronary artery disease is the most common type, affecting one in 20 U.S. adults over the age of 20. Problems arise when cholesterol deposits (plaque) cause your coronary arteries to become narrower, making it more difficult for oxygen-rich blood to reach your heart.
The condition is one of several known as a “silent killer,” since you may not realize you have it until you have a heart attack. Symptoms may include:
- Chest pain (angina): This could be a pressure or tightness in your chest, usually in the middle or left side. For some people (particularly women) there may be a brief or sharp pain the neck, arm or back.
- Shortness of breath
- Unexplained fatigue
Heart arrhythmia happens when your heart’s rhythm is off. It can beat too quickly (tachycardia) or too slowly (bradycardia) or irregularly. It’s estimated that up to 5 percent of people have an arrhythmia. Often, arrhythmias are harmless and need no treatment. But in some cases, they can be life-threatening.
Among the most serious is atrial fibrillation (the most common type of arrhythmia in the U.S.), a condition that starts in the upper chambers of your heart. This irregular heartbeat is often very rapid and can lead to blood clots, increasing the risk of stroke and heart failure if left untreated. Long-term endurance athletes also are more vulnerable as their hearts grow larger to accommodate their cardiac needs.
As with coronary artery disease, there are often no noticeable symptoms. But some people do experience symptoms, including:
- Fast or fluttering heartbeat
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Unexplained weakness
Heart failure occurs when your heart no longer works the way it should. Your weakened heart can no longer pump enough oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to meet the needs of your body’s cells. A common cause of heart failure is persistent high blood pressure. Long-term endurance athletes also are more vulnerable as their hearts grow larger to accommodate their cardiac needs.
There is no cure, but there are management options available – including specialized pacemakers, medication, dietary and lifestyle changes – to improve symptoms and help you live longer. Symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath, with activity or when lying down
- Swollen legs, ankles and feet
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Difficulty exercising
- Persistent cough
- Rapid weight gain from fluid buildup
- Lack of appetite or nausea
Heart Valve Disease
Heart valve disease occurs when there is damage or disease in one of the four valves that control the direction of blood flowing through your heart. The two most common types that can lead to heart failure are aortic stenosis (a narrowing of the valve opening) and mitral regurgitation (a leaky valve that allows blood to flow backwards).
Heart valve problems can be related to aging, birth defects, infections and other heart conditions. Symptoms include:
- Chest pain (particularly when exerting yourself)
- Swelling in the ankles, feet or abdomen
- Rapid weight gain
- Irregular heartbeat
- Unexplained shortness of breath
Peripheral Artery Disease
Peripheral artery disease is similar to coronary artery disease, except that it involves narrowing of the arteries that carry blood away from your heart. Typically, the reduced blood flow affects the legs, though it can also affect the arms. This increases your risk for coronary artery disease, heart attack and stroke. And if not treated, it can lead to gangrene and amputation of limbs.
The condition can be difficult to diagnose, with people often having mild symptoms, or none at all. If you experience symptoms, they include:
- Pain or cramping in your legs (claudication) that gets worse with exercise and better with rest
- Coldness in a foot or lower leg, particularly when compared to the rest of your body
- Leg numbness
- Shiny leg skin
- Slower nail growth
- Pain in your arms when doing things like writing or typing
Pericardial disease refers to a group of conditions affecting the fibrous sac that surrounds and anchors your heart in your chest. Among the most common of these is pericardial effusion – the buildup of too much fluid in the sac. The fluid can put pressure on your heart – inhibiting its ability to operate – and lead to heart failure. It can be caused by a wide range of things, including cancer, radiation therapy, chest trauma and inflammation following a heart attack. Symptoms include:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Breathing while lying down is uncomfortable
- Feeling faint
- Swollen abdomen or legs
- Chest pain (usually on the left side or behind your breastbone)
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