What is Heart Disease?
Heart disease is a term used to describe the many conditions affecting heart functions. (1)
An unhealthy lifestyle is one of the biggest reasons we develop heart disease. The lack of exercise, an unbalanced diet plus smoking or drinking alcohol will all increase your risk of three major contributors to the condition: high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure. (2, 3)
However, it can also be down to genetics or simply because you were born with some form of heart defect.
Whatever the reason, heart disease is the number one cause of death for both genders in the US. It is estimated one in every four fatalities are down to this chronic illness. (4)
Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease in the US. It’s a blood vessel disorder, where a substance called plaque builds up in the coronary arteries. This can lead to a heart attack. (5)
The general symptoms for heart disease can be described as follows:
Chest pain is tenderness in the upper body area. However, this is not always a sign of heart disease and could have another less serious cause, such as indigestion.
Angina however, is a symptom of coronary heart disease. It’s a feeling of discomfort in the chest which can subside with rest.
Angina varies from person to person. Some might describe it as if someone was sitting on their chest, bringing pain in the neck, jaw or arms. Others could they experience mild discomfort, shortness of breath or fatigue. (6)
Shortness of Breath
When the heart weakens, it finds it harder to pump blood around the body. Blood also includes oxygen and other nutrients.
If your heart isn’t pushing blood around the body efficiently enough it can also prevent the lungs from absorbing the oxygen required. Hence the reason why you may find it more difficult to breathe while active, resting or even sleeping.
Shortness of breath can be a telltale sign of many conditions associated with heart disease. (7)
Swelling in Legs, Ankles or Feet
Swelling or what is known as edema is another symptom of heart disease.
If your heart isn’t working at full capacity, the blood flow slows down which could lead to a build up. This could cause fluid to accumulate in areas of the body.
Common areas of occurence are your extremities such as ankles and feet. However, it can also develop within the stomach area. (8)
Numbness or Leg Pain
This is a sign of an accumulation of plaque within the blood vessels. It causes them to become smaller, slowing down the blood flow.
It can be a feeling of tenderness or aching in the upper or lower parts of the legs or feet, yet it often goes away with rest.
When resting, the feet may feel cold to touch. This is a sign not enough blood is circulating around the body.
We all get days where we feel lethargic or tired. However, when it becomes a constant feeling of total exhaustion just to perform simple tasks, it could be a sign of something more serious.
The blood in your veins provides your entire body with everything it needs. If the heart isn’t running like clockwork it will impact on circling blood supplies.
Heart disease typically means the heart must work harder to keep the blood flowing. At times it can beat fast, whereas in other cases it slows down.
A feeling of racing or pounding in the chest could be a sign of arrhythmia. (10)
Heart disease is a term which covers various conditions of the heart. This means there aren’t clinically documented stages involving every single illness within this category. However, certain medical issues do tend to arise in a generalized pattern.
One major factor of heart disease is atherosclerosis. This can be described as one of the earliest conditions which leads to a possible chain of events.
It occurs when fatty residue (plaque) builds up in the arteries as a result of offending substances like high cholesterol and fats. Over time, this accumulation narrows blood vessels and curbs the flow of blood around the body. (11, 12, 13)
Atherosclerosis can progress into other forms of heart disease.
Angina is a sign heart disease is advancing and a follow on complication of atherosclerosis.
At this point, plaque build up has diminished available space within the arteries. It has progressed to such an extent, it means the heart has to increase tempo and work much harder than normal.
This leads to periods of pressure or a sense of tightness in the chest. This can even manifest along the arms, shoulders or other parts of the body.
There are various types of angina, yet the most common is medically referred to as “stable”. This is when episodes follow a regular pattern, making it a little easier to anticipate the pain.
Angina is an early indicator a heart attack is possible. (14)
If plaque continues to collect within the arteries it can create a life threatening scenario – a heart attack.
The fatty residue can break off and form a blood clot. As this moves along the reduced capacity artery it can become lodged and completely block blood flow.
If this happens it turns into a medical emergency.
The obstruction must be cleared as soon as possible otherwise the heart could be permanently damaged. (15)
There are a number of different treatments for heart disease. Which treatment your doctor prescribes will be based upon what kind of condition you have.
Generally treatment falls into three main categories: medical, surgical or transplant.
Any treatment should be accompanied by a healthy lifestyle.
There are a numerous medications available to treat heart disease. It will heavily depend upon what type of condition you have.
Medication works in different ways. From relaxing your heart, to lowering blood pressure. Some work to strengthen the heart or lower the fluids in the lungs. (16)
A doctor or physician will appoint the right medical treatment.
As heart disease develops into a more severe stage, medication or a healthy lifestyle may not be as effective. In this case a medical procedure or surgical treatment may be the only solution.
Depending on the type of condition, a doctor might implant a type of pacemaker to help the heart’s two sides beat in a synchronized rhythm.
A device known as a implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) aids a regular rhythm of the heart beat. (17)
However, in the case of severe heart failure the heart might need a mechanical device called left ventricular assist device. This device helps the heart pump blood around the body.
In the case of congenital heart defect, some cases need corrective surgery straight after birth, whereas others can be treated with medication.
At the end stages of heart disease there is high chance of complete failure, which means the heart will eventually cease to function. In these circumstances a heart transplant is the only option. (18)
What is heart disease? Heart disease is the general term used to describe the different heart conditions, such as coronary artery disease, arrhythmia or angina, among many others.
What are the signs of heart disease? Signs of heart disease can vary according to condition. Common symptoms are chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue or swollen limbs.
How do you develop heart disease? Anyone can develop heart disease. It can be a genetic reason or a birth defect. However, it’s predominantly down to a unhealthy lifestyle or another condition such as diabetes. (19)
How are you diagnosed for heart disease? Doctors generally diagnose heart disease with different tests such as by ECG (electrocardiogram), chest x-rays or even an exercise stress test. Doctors will also ask about medical history of the patient to see if any condition could be inherited.
What is the best treatment for heart disease? Prevention is always encouraged. However, if a heart condition has already developed there are a few different medical treatments to help the heart and ease the strain. Failing that, surgery is another option.
What are the long term complications of heart disease? The threat of cardiac arrest is a long term complication, because the heart simply weakens. Other complications can also be emotional stress, anxiety or depression. Everyone deals with disease and recovery in their own way. There are support groups and counsellors who will work with the patient in these circumstances. (20)
Is heart disease considered a disability? It is not considered a disability, but it can be disabling if the condition is serious.
Is there a cure for heart disease? No, heart disease is not curable. But with the right treatment its symptoms can be minimized.
Is heart disease life threatening? Yes, without treatment, either medical or with lifestyle changes, it can be fatal.
Heart disease can affect anyone. It can be a birth defect or inherited from family members, but it is not contagious.
There are many conditions which fall under the term heart disease. They all center around either the heart muscle, vessels or arteries. Symptoms vary, although there are common indicators, such as chest pain or shortness of breath.
However, heart disease can be prevented by a healthy lifestyle and it’s also treatable with the right medication or surgical procedures.