Heart disease describes a range of conditions that affect your heart. Diseases under the heart disease umbrella include blood vessel diseases, such as coronary artery disease; heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias); and heart defects you’re born with (congenital heart defects), among others.
The term “heart disease” is often used interchangeably with the term “cardiovascular disease.” Cardiovascular disease generally refers to conditions that involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack, chest pain (angina) or stroke. Other heart conditions, such as those that affect your heart’s muscle, valves or rhythm, also are considered forms of heart disease.
Many forms of heart disease can be prevented or treated with healthy lifestyle choices.
How the heart works
Your heart is a pump. It’s a muscular organ about the size of your fist, situated slightly left of center in your chest. Your heart is divided into the right and the left side. The division protects oxygen-rich blood from mixing with oxygen-poor blood. Oxygen-poor blood returns to the heart after circulating through your body.
The right side of the heart, comprising the right atrium and ventricle, collects and pumps blood to the lungs through the pulmonary arteries.
The lungs refresh the blood with a new supply of oxygen. The lungs also breathe out carbon dioxide, a waste product.
Oxygen-rich blood then enters the left side of the heart, comprising the left atrium and ventricle.
The left side of the heart pumps blood through the aorta to supply tissues throughout the body with oxygen and nutrients.
Four valves within your heart keep your blood moving the right way by opening only one way and only when they need to. To function properly, the valve must be formed properly, must open all the way and most close tightly so there’s no leakage. The four valves are:
A beating heart contracts and relaxes in a continuous cycle.
During contraction (systole), your ventricles contract, forcing blood into the vessels to your lungs and body.
During relaxation (diastole), the ventricles are filled with blood coming from the upper chambers (left and right atria).
Your heart’s electrical wiring keeps it beating, which controls the continuous exchange of oxygen-rich blood with oxygen-poor blood. This exchange keeps you alive.
Electrical impulses begin high in the right atrium and travel through specialized pathways to the ventricles, delivering the signal for the heart to pump.
The conduction system keeps your heart beating in a coordinated and normal rhythm, which keeps blood circulating.
Various heart disease causes
The causes of heart disease vary by type of heart disease.
Causes of cardiovascular disease
While cardiovascular disease can refer to different heart or blood vessel problems, the term is often used to mean damage to your heart or blood vessels by atherosclerosis (ath-ur-o-skluh-ROE-sis), a buildup of fatty plaques in your arteries. Plaque buildup thickens and stiffens artery walls, which can inhibit blood flow through your arteries to your organs and tissues.
Atherosclerosis is also the most common cause of cardiovascular disease. It can be caused by correctable problems, such as an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, being overweight and smoking.
Causes of heart arrhythmia
Common causes of abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias) or conditions that can lead to arrhythmias include:
- Heart defects you’re born with (congenital heart defects)
- Coronary artery disease
- High blood pressure
- Excessive use of alcohol or caffeine
- Drug abuse
- Some over-the-counter medications, prescription medications, dietary supplements and herbal remedies
- Valvular heart disease
In a healthy person with a normal, healthy heart, it’s unlikely for a fatal arrhythmia to develop without some outside trigger, such as an electrical shock or the use of illegal drugs. That’s primarily because a healthy person’s heart is free from any abnormal conditions that cause an arrhythmia, such as an area of scarred tissue.
However, in a heart that’s diseased or deformed, the heart’s electrical impulses may not properly start or travel through the heart, making arrhythmias more likely to develop.
Causes of congenital heart defects
- Heart defects usually develop while a baby is in the womb. Heart defects can develop as the heart develops, about a month after conception, changing the flow of blood in the heart. Some medical conditions, medications and genes may play a role in causing heart defects.
- Heart defects can also develop in adults. As you age, your heart’s structure can change, causing a heart defect.
Causes of cardiomyopathy
The cause of cardiomyopathy, a thickening or enlarging of the heart muscle, may depend on the type:
- Dilated cardiomyopathy. The cause of this most common type of cardiomyopathy often is unknown. It may be caused by reduced blood flow to the heart (ischemic heart disease), infections, toxins and certain drugs. It also may be inherited from a parent. It usually enlarges (dilates) the left ventricle.
- Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This type, in which the heart muscle becomes abnormally thick, usually is inherited. It can also develop over time because of high blood pressure or aging.
- Restrictive cardiomyopathy. This least common type of cardiomyopathy, which causes the heart muscle to become rigid and less elastic, can occur for no known reason. Or it may be caused by diseases, such as connective tissue disorders or excessive iron buildup in your body (hemochromatosis), or by some cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation.
Causes of heart infection
Heart infections, such as pericarditis, endocarditis and myocarditis, are caused when an irritant, such as a bacterium, virus or chemical, reaches your heart muscle. The most common causes of heart infections include:
Causes of valvular heart disease
There are many causes of diseases of your heart valves. You may be born with valvular disease, or the valves may be damaged by conditions such as:
- Rheumatic fever
- Infections (infectious endocarditis)
- Connective tissue disorders
Heart disease symptoms depend on what type of heart disease you have.
Symptoms of heart disease in your blood vessels (atherosclerotic disease)
Cardiovascular disease is caused by narrowed, blocked or stiffened blood vessels that prevent your heart, brain or other parts of your body from receiving enough blood. Cardiovascular disease symptoms may be different for men and women. For instance, men are more likely to have chest pain; women are more likely to have symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea and extreme fatigue.
- Symptoms can include:
- Chest pain (angina)
- Shortness of breath
- Pain, numbness, weakness or coldness in your legs or arms if the blood vessels in those parts of your body are narrowed
- Pain in the neck, jaw, throat, upper abdomen or back
You might not be diagnosed with cardiovascular disease until you have a heart attack, angina, stroke or heart failure. It’s important to watch for cardiovascular symptoms and discuss concerns with your doctor. Cardiovascular disease can sometimes be found early with regular exams.
Heart disease symptoms caused by abnormal heartbeats (heart arrhythmias)
A heart arrhythmia is an abnormal heartbeat. Your heart may beat too quickly, too slowly or irregularly. Heart arrhythmia symptoms can include:
- Fluttering in your chest
- Racing heartbeat (tachycardia)
- Slow heartbeat (bradycardia)
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Fainting (syncope) or near fainting
Heart disease symptoms caused by heart defects
Serious congenital heart defects — defects you’re born with — usually become evident soon after birth. Heart defect symptoms in children could include:
- Pale gray or blue skin color (cyanosis)
- Swelling in the legs, abdomen or areas around the eyes
- In an infant, shortness of breath during feedings, leading to poor weight gain
Less serious congenital heart defects are often not diagnosed until later in childhood or during adulthood. Signs and symptoms of congenital heart defects that usually aren’t immediately life-threatening include:
- Easily getting short of breath during exercise or activity
- Easily tiring during exercise or activity
- Swelling in the hands, ankles or feet
Heart disease symptoms caused by weak heart muscle (dilated cardiomyopathy)
Cardiomyopathy is the thickening and stiffening of heart muscle. In early stages of cardiomyopathy, you may have no symptoms. As the condition worsens, symptoms may include:
- Breathlessness with exertion or at rest
- Swelling of the legs, ankles and feet
- Irregular heartbeats that feel rapid, pounding or fluttering
- Dizziness, lightheadedness and fainting
Heart disease symptoms caused by heart infections
There are three types of heart infections:
- Pericarditis, which affects the tissue surrounding the heart (pericardium)
- Myocarditis, which affects the muscular middle layer of the walls of the heart (myocardium)
- Endocarditis, which affects the inner membrane that separates the chambers and valves of the heart (endocardium)
Varying slightly with each type of infection, heart infection symptoms can include:
- Shortness of breath
- Weakness or fatigue
- Swelling in your legs or abdomen
- Changes in your heart rhythm
- Dry or persistent cough
- Skin rashes or unusual spots
Heart disease symptoms caused by valvular heart disease
The heart has four valves — the aortic, mitral, pulmonary and tricuspid valves — that open and close to direct blood flow through your heart. Valves may be damaged by a variety of conditions leading to narrowing (stenosis), leaking (regurgitation or insufficiency) or improper closing (prolapse).
Depending on which valve isn’t working properly, valvular heart disease symptoms generally include:
- Shortness of breath
- Irregular heartbeat
- Swollen feet or ankles
- Chest pain
- Fainting (syncope)
When to see a doctor
Seek emergency medical care if you have these heart disease symptoms:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
Heart disease is easier to treat when detected early, so talk to your doctor about your concerns about your heart health. If you’re concerned about developing heart disease, talk to your doctor about steps you can take to reduce your heart disease risk. This is especially important if you have a family history of heart disease.
If you think you may have heart disease, based on new signs or symptoms you’re having, make an appointment to see your doctor.