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); congestive heart failure, 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.
Heart disease symptoms depend on what type of heart disease you have.
Symptoms of heart disease in your blood vessels (atherosclerotic disease):
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 other symptoms along with chest discomfort, such as shortness of breath, nausea and extreme fatigue.
Symptoms can include:
- Chest pain, chest tightness, chest pressure and chest discomfort (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 evaluations.
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 weak heart muscle (dilated cardiomyopathy)
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 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)
Risk factors for developing heart disease include:
- Age. Aging increases your risk of damaged and narrowed arteries and weakened or thickened heart muscle.
- Sex. Men are generally at greater risk of heart disease. However, women’s risk increases after menopause.
- Family history. A family history of heart disease increases your risk of coronary artery disease, especially if a parent developed it at an early age (before age 55 for a male relative, such as your brother or father, and 65 for a female relative, such as your mother or sister).
- Smoking. Nicotine constricts your blood vessels, and carbon monoxide can damage their inner lining, making them more susceptible to atherosclerosis. Heart attacks are more common in smokers than in nonsmokers.
- Poor diet. A diet that’s high in fat, salt, sugar and cholesterol can contribute to the development of heart disease.
- High blood pressure. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can result in hardening and thickening of your arteries, narrowing the vessels through which blood flows.
- High blood cholesterol levels. High levels of cholesterol in your blood can increase the risk of formation of plaques and atherosclerosis.
- Diabetes. Diabetes increases your risk of heart disease. Both conditions share similar risk factors, such as obesity and high blood pressure.
- Obesity. Excess weight typically worsens other risk factors.
- Physical inactivity. Lack of exercise also is associated with many forms of heart disease and some of its other risk factors, as well.
- Stress. Unrelieved stress may damage your arteries and worsen other risk factors for heart disease.
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