Know Your Heart

An Overview of Hearth Disease

By Richard N. Fogoros, MD | Medically reviewed by a board-certified physician
Updated January 28, 2019


Heart disease

is the generic term used for a wide variety of heart conditions that can affect the heart muscle, valves, vessels, structure, electrical system, or coronary arteries. Heart disease includes conditions such as cardiac arrhythmias, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, valve disorders, and congenital heart defects. Though each disease affects the heart differently, the ultimate problem with all varieties of heart disease is that, in one way or another, they can disrupt the vital pumping action of the heart. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women.

The Cardiac System
The heart is fundamentally a powerful and tireless pump. It consists of muscular chambers that contract to push the blood through the vascular system and a series of valves that keep the blood moving efficiently and in the right direction. There’s a self-regulating electrical system that determines your heart rate and coordinates the sequential beating of the various cardiac chambers.

To do all this muscular work around the clock, your heart needs a large and continuous supply of oxygen-rich blood. The coronary arteries are the vessels that supply this blood to the heart muscle, so they are critically important to the heart and to life.

Atherosclerotic Disease
Cardiac Arrhythmias
Heart Valve Disease
Heart Infections
Heart Failure

There are many different kinds of heart disease, and while each can produce its own set of symptoms, there are some key ones that many types share. These frequent symptoms include chest pain or discomfort, palpitations, lightheadedness or dizziness, fainting, fatigue, and shortness of breath. However, sometimes heart disease has no symptoms at all, especially if it’s in the early stages.

Because heart disease is a general term for a number of different conditions, the cause of your case depends on the type you have. The bad news about heart disease is that it remains extremely prevalent in our society—it’s the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. The good news is that many of the factors that determine your risk of developing heart disease are, to a large extent, under your control. Some common causes are:

  • Stress
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Diet (high blood pressure, high cholesterol)
  • Diabetes
  • Certain medications, including over-the-counter medicines, herbal remedies, and prescription medications
  • Drinking alcohol or caffeine in excessive amounts
  • Drug use

Know Your Heart Disease
“Heart disease” is a pretty nonspecific term. There are many different kinds of heart disease, and most types will show a tremendous amount of variability from person to person in its symptoms, its severity, its treatment, and its prognosis.

So one of the most important things you will need to do is learn as much as you can about your particular disease, about the nature of the problem you have, and about what you can do to slow or even stop its progression. The more knowledge you have, the more you will be able to partner with your doctor in making the decisions about your care that are right for you.

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