Signs and Symptoms of Heart Disease
Generally, symptoms of CAD include:
- Angina (pain, tightness, pressure, or discomfort in the chest)
- Shortness of breath
- Extreme fatigue with exertion
- Pain in the jaw, throat, neck, upper abdomen, or back
PAD can include these symptoms as well, though the most common signs are cramping of the lower extremities and pain in the leg or hip muscles while climbing stairs.
Symptoms of arrhythmias include:
- Fluttering in the chest or the sensation of skipping a beat (palpitations)
- Racing heartbeat (tachycardia)
- Slow heartbeat (bradycardia)
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or light-headedness
Symptoms of congenital heart disease include:
- Shortness of breath
- A bluish tint to the skin, lips, and fingernails
- Tiring quickly
- Swelling of the body tissue or organs
Symptoms of cardiomyopathy include:
- Breathlessness with exertion or at rest
- Dizziness, light-headedness, and fainting
- Swelling of the legs, ankles, and feet
Causes and Risk Factors of Heart Disease
The causes of heart disease also vary depending on the type of disease.
- Heart defects that you’re born with
- High blood pressure
- Heart failure
- Tobacco use
- Excessive caffeine or alcohol consumption
- Drug use
- Certain over-the-counter medicines, prescription drugs, dietary supplements, and herbal remedies
How Is Heart Disease Diagnosed?
Before a heart disease diagnosis is made, your healthcare provider will gather a full medical history and perform a physical exam. If your doctor suspects heart disease, blood tests will be ordered to check your cholesterol and triglyceride levels, as well as look for proteins that could signal heart failure or plaque in your arteries. A chest X-ray will also help your doctor look for signs of heart failure or heart valve problems.
- Electrocardiogram (ECG)?This test records electrical signals from the heart that can help determine abnormalities in the heart’s rhythm and structure.
- Stress Tests?These involve elevating your heart rate with exercise or medication while performing ECG and imaging of the heart to see how it performs.
- Echocardiogram This?ultrasound of your heart displays detailed images of its structure and how it functions.
- Holter Monitors Allowing for a continuous ECG through a portable device you wear for 24 to 72 hours, this type of monitoring can detect heart rhythm abnormalities not detected on an standard resting ECG.
- Computerized Tomography Scans produce detailed images of your heart and can help doctors detect calcium in the coronary arteries.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging A powerful magnetic field produces detailed images of the structures within and around the heart. It can also detect scars present in the heart muscle. This will help your doctor evaluate your heart’s anatomy and function.
- Cardiac Catheterization This test can help your physician detect abnormalities in the blood flow through your heart, blood vessels, and valves. It involves a short tube inserted into a vein or artery in your groin or arm, into which a hollow, longer tube is inserted. With the help of imaging on a monitor, your doctor will guide the catheter through the vein or artery until it reaches your heart.
Duration of Heart Disease
How long heart disease lasts very much depends on the type of heart disease an individual has and the severity of the condition. For example, it may be possible for someone to partially reverse the effects of CAD over time with the right treatments and lifestyle changes.
While there is no cure for other forms of heart disease, like PAD and heart failure, your doctor will help you come up with a treatment plan to manage the symptoms.
Treatment and Medication Options for Heart Disease
How your heart disease is treated depends on your specific condition.
- Anticoagulants, or blood thinners, decrease the clotting ability of the blood. They are used to treat certain blood vessel, heart, and heart rhythm conditions.
- Antiplatelet agents, such as aspirin, can help prevent blood clots in people who have had a heart attack or stroke. Sometimes a doctor may prescribe aspirin along with another antiplatelet medication, known as dual antiplatelet therapy.
- Angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors expand blood vessels and decrease resistance by lowering levels of hormones that regulate blood pressure, allowing blood to flow through the body more easily.
- Angiotensin II receptor blockers block specific hormones from having any effect on the heart and blood vessels, thereby preventing blood pressure from rising.
- Beta-blockers work by slowing down the heart rate and decreasing the effects of adrenaline on the heart. This helps lower blood pressure so the heart has to do less work.
- Calcium channel blockers interrupt the movement of calcium into the cells of the heart and blood vessels, relaxing the blood vessels. They can also help slow the heart rate during an arrhythmia. Calcium channel blockers are generally avoided in patients with a weakened heart muscle (such as individuals with heart failure).
- Digitalis can help the heart contract harder when its pumping function has been weakened.
- Vasodilators increase blood and oxygen to the heart, reducing its workload. This can help ease angina.
- Diuretics, also known as water pills, rid the body of excess fluids and sodium through urination. This helps relieve the heart’s workload.
- Cholesterol-lowering medicines, like statins, decrease levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in the blood.
If both lifestyle changes and medication are not enough, your doctor may suggest surgery. The type of heart disease you have and how much damage has been done to your heart will determine which procedure is needed.
- Angioplasty In angioplasty, special tubing is threaded up to the coronary artery with an attached deflated balloon. The balloon is then inflated to widen the areas that are blocked and where blood flow to the heart has been slowed or cut off.
- Stent Placement A wire mesh tube is used to prop open an artery during an angioplasty and stays in the artery permanently.
- Artificial Heart Valve Surgery This procedure restores function to the heart valves by repairing or replacing a diseased or damaged heart valve with a healthy one.
- Bypass Surgery This surgery removes healthy arteries or veins from other parts of the body and uses them to reroute blood around clogged arteries in the heart, improving blood flow to the heart.
- Radiofrequency Ablation This procedure can treat a variety of heart rhythm problems when medications do not work. A catheter is placed at the site in the heart where electrical signals are causing the abnormal heart rhythm. A mild radiofrequency energy is then transmitted, destroying heart muscle cells in a very small area.
- Cardiomyoplasty This is an experimental procedure in which doctors remove skeletal muscles from the back or abdomen and wrap them around a weakened heart to help boost its ability to pump.
- Heart Transplant This surgery is performed in the most serious of circumstances, when a heart is irreversibly damaged. If you need a heart transplant, your heart will be removed and replaced with a healthy one from an organ donor.
- Transmyocardial Revascularization This procedure is performed with a laser, which drills tiny pinholes through the heart muscle and into the heart’s pumping chamber to improve blood flow and reduce angina.
Prevention of Heart Disease
Having a healthy diet and consistently exercising are two of the most important actions to take to prevent heart disease.
A healthy diet is another way to take care of your heart and can help prevent — or possibly reverse — heart disease. Foods that are part of a heart-healthy diet include:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Low-fat or fat-free dairy products
- Lean protein, like skinless poultry and fish
- Nuts, seeds, and legumes
- Nontropical vegetable oils, like olive and canola oils
The AHA recommends the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan for optimal heart health.
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Abstaining from smoking cigarettes
- Limiting alcohol consumption
- Finding ways to manage stress
Complications of Heart Disease
Heart disease can lead to a number of serious, potentially fatal complications, including heart attack, stroke, and heart failure.
Finally, heart disease can lead to sudden cardiac arrest, or the unexpected loss of heart function. This is often caused by an arrhythmia called ventricular fibrillation or ventricular tachycardia. Sudden cardiac arrest is a medical emergency and, if not treated immediately, will result in death.
Research and Statistics: How Many People Have Heart Disease?
Black and Hispanic Communities and Heart Disease
Related Conditions and Causes of Heart Disease
Heart Disease Resources We Love
Favorite Organizations for Essential Information About Heart Disease
The AHA is the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting heart disease. The AHA funds lifesaving research, advocates for people affected by all heart-related issues, and provides education about heart and stroke. You can also connect with others living with various heart conditions through the AHA’s support network.
The ACC is a nonprofit medical association that bestows credentials to cardiovascular specialists who meet their criteria. For nearly four decades, the ACC has partnered with the AHA to develop clinical practice guidelines for practicing cardiologists. The ACC holds annual meetings that focus on the latest research and innovation in the realm of heart health.
Favorite Online Support Networks
This organization helps women who are dealing with heart-related health issues connect with one another. Check out the website, where you can scroll over an interactive map of the United States to see if there are local support networks in your community. WomenHeart also offers one-on-one support by text, phone, or email, virtual live meetings, and an online community.
This national- and community-based organization is a peer-to-peer support network for people with heart disease and their families. Use its website to find a local chapter or support group near you or join one of the online discussion groups focusing on an array of heart conditions.
This nonprofit organization seeks to empower patients living with congenital heart disease (CHD) and their families. Online support networks include Facebook groups for teens and adults with CHD, a Spanish-language support group, and a bereavement group for families affected by CHD. There are also several state chapters, which offer both virtual and in-person peer support.
Favorite Apps for People With Heart Disease
Cardiio is a heart fitness app that uses your phone's camera to measure your heart rate and provides users with information on how the numbers relate to their general health. Also find tips on how to perform effective workouts and track your progress. Cardiio is free on the App Store.
This app alerts users who have indicated they are trained in CPR if someone nearby is having a cardiac emergency and may require CPR before EMS can arrive. The app also directs these potential rescuers to the closest automated external defibrillator.
Favorite Resource for Heart-Healthy Diet Advice
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers advice and comprehensive, actionable cooking tips to make your diet more heart-healthy.
Favorite Resource for Becoming an Advocate
The AHA’s signature women’s initiative is designed to increase awareness around women’s heart health and spur change to improve the lives of women around the world. Participate in the annual National Wear Red Day every February and start conversations about women’s heart health with those in your life.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Heart Disease Facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. September 27, 2021.
- Heart Disease. Mayo Clinic. February 9, 2021.
- Your Feet, Your Heart: What’s the Connection. American Heart Association. October 9, 2020.
- What Are Congenital Heart Defects? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. November 17, 2020.
- Heart-Healthy Living. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
- Types of Heart Medications. American Heart Association. January 15, 2020.
- Heart Procedures and Surgeries. American Heart Association. October 5, 2020.
- American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids. American Heart Association. April 18, 2018.
- Exercise Mind and Body With Yoga and Mindful Movement. American Heart Association. January 9, 2017.
- Managing Blood Pressure With a Heart-Healthy Diet. American Heart Association. October 31, 2016.
- 2021 Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics Update Fact Sheet. American Heart Association.
- Heart Disease and African Americans. Department of Health and Human Services Offices of Minority Health. February 11, 2021.
- African American Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. July 3, 2017.
- High Blood Pressure and African Americans. American Heart Association. October 31, 2016.
- Heart Disease in Hispanic Women. American Heart Association.
- Health Risks of Overweight and Obesity. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. February 2018.
- What You Need to Know About How Sleep Apnea Affects Your Heart. American Heart Association. November 10, 2020.