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

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. 
heart may beat too quickly, too slowly or

 Heart arrhythmia symptoms can
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
Serious congenital heart defects — defects you're
born with — usually become evident soon after
birth. Heart defect symptoms in children could

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)
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

Endocarditis is an infection that affects the inner
membrane that separates the chambers and
valves of the heart (endocardium). 

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

Depending on which valve isn't working properly,
valvular heart disease symptoms generally
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
regarding 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.

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
prevents 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

The left side of the heart pumps blood
through the aorta to supply tissues
throughout the body with oxygen and

Heart valves
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 must close tightly so there's no
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).

Electrical system
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

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
Congenital 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
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) resulting from damage after
a heart attack, infections, toxins and certain
drugs. It may also be inherited from a
parent. It usually enlarges (dilates) the left
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,
excessive iron buildup in your body
(hemochromatosis), the buildup of
abnormal proteins (amyloidosis) or by
some cancer treatments.

Causes of heart infection
A heart infection, such as endocarditis, is caused
when an irritant, such as a bacterium, virus or
chemical, reaches your heart muscle. 
The most
common causes of heart infection 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
Rheumatic fever
Infections (infectious endocarditis)
Connective tissue disorders

Risk factors
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.

Certain chemotherapy drugs and radiation
therapy for cancer. Some chemotherapy
drugs and radiation therapies may increase
the risk of cardiovascular disease.

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

Diabetes. Diabetes increases your risk of
heart disease. Both conditions share similar
risk factors, such as obesity and high blood

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.

Poor hygiene. Not regularly washing your
hands and not establishing other habits that
can help prevent viral or bacterial infections
can put you at risk of heart infections,
especially if you already have an underlying
heart condition. Poor dental health also
may contribute to heart disease.

Complications of heart disease include:
Heart failure. One of the most common
complications of heart disease, heart failure
occurs when your heart can't pump enough
blood to meet your body's needs. Heart
failure can result from many forms of heart
disease, including heart defects,
cardiovascular disease, valvular heart
disease, heart infections or cardiomyopathy.

Heart attack. A blood clot blocking the
blood flow through a blood vessel that
feeds the heart causes a heart attack,
possibly damaging or destroying a part of
the heart muscle. Atherosclerosis can
cause a heart attack.

Stroke. The risk factors that lead to
cardiovascular disease also can lead to an
ischemic stroke, which happens when the
arteries to your brain are narrowed or
blocked so that too little blood reaches
your brain. A stroke is a medical
emergency — brain tissue begins to die
within just a few minutes of a stroke.

Aneurysm. A serious complication that can
occur anywhere in your body, an aneurysm
is a bulge in the wall of your artery. 

If an
aneurysm bursts, you may face life-
threatening internal bleeding.
Peripheral artery disease.

also can lead to peripheral artery disease.
When you develop peripheral artery disease,
your extremities — usually your legs — don't
receive enough blood flow. This causes
symptoms, most notably leg pain when
walking (claudication).

Sudden cardiac arrest. Sudden cardiac
arrest is the sudden, unexpected loss of
heart function, breathing and
consciousness, often caused by an
arrhythmia. Sudden cardiac arrest is a
medical emergency. 

If not treated
immediately, it is fatal, resulting in sudden
cardiac death.

Certain types of heart disease, such as heart
defects, can't be prevented. 

However, you can
help prevent many other types of heart disease by
making the same lifestyle changes that can
improve your heart disease, such as:

Quit smoking
Control other health conditions, such as
high blood pressure, high cholesterol and
Exercise at least 30 minutes a day on most
days of the week
Eat a diet that's low in salt and saturated
Maintain a healthy weight
Reduce and manage stress
Practice good hygiene