The Four Types of Heart Disease
Four types of heart disease are among the most common cardiac problems in the U.S.: coronary artery disease, arrhythmias, heart failure, and heart valve disease.
We’ve all heard the alarming statistics. Heart disease is a killer of American adults. In fact, about 700,000 people die of heart disease in the U.S. every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
But heart disease isn’t one specific condition. It’s a term that covers any disease involving your heart or related vascular system. Cardiovascular disease ― an umbrella designation for coronary artery disease (CAD), heart failure, high blood pressure, and stroke ― is the main type of heart disease, by far, in the U.S. In fact, about 50 percent of American adults have some form of cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
In addition to CAD and heart failure, arrhythmias (glitches in the heart's electrical system) and heart valve disease are four types of heart disease frequently affecting Americans.
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Coronary artery disease and heart attacks
Coronary artery disease, also called coronary heart disease, is primarily caused by artery clogging atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis, also called arteriosclerosis, occurs when plaque (comprised of LDL, the “bad” cholesterol, and other substances) builds up and narrows arteries.
Smoking is also linked to atherosclerosis, according to the American Heart Association. High blood pressure plays an important role in CAD, too, because it damages arteries over time, causing inflammation and contributing to plaque formation.
Narrowed arteries due to CAD restrict blood flow throughout your body. If your heart muscle doesn’t get enough blood, you may feel squeezing or pressure in your chest (and sometimes your shoulders, arm, neck, back, or jaw). That can be a warning sign of CAD, or it can indicate you’re having a full-blown heart attack. Every year, more than 800,000 Americans suffer heart attacks resulting from CAD. This type of heart disease also raises your risk of stroke.
Arrhythmias: When skipping or fast heartbeats are serious
You probably don’t think about how your heart is beating unless it pounds from a sudden fright or extreme athletic activity. But it can be disconcerting if your heart starts skipping beats or beating unusually fast or irregular, signs of an arrhythmia.
Arrhythmia technically means any change in the normal sequence of electrical impulses that keep your heart beating steadily. Arrhythmias occur when your heart's natural pacemaker develops an abnormality, or the normal pathway in your heart that conducts electrical signals is interrupted.
There are many types of arrhythmias; some are totally benign, and others can be life-threatening. Others are worrisome without causing serious problems. One example is paroxysmal (meaning it starts with no known cause) supraventricular tachycardia (meaning a heart rate over 100 beats per minute that originates in your heart’s upper chambers). Known as PSVT, for short, the arrhythmia is frequently misdiagnosed as a panic attack because it typically occurs in structurally normal hearts, often in healthy young people. Usually, the episodes are short-lived. Splashing cold water on your face can stop them.
Other abnormal heart rhythms can be serious when they prevent your heart from pumping blood effectively, causing dizziness, fainting, or even organ damage. The most serious arrhythmia, ventricular fibrillation (v-fib), is the cause of most sudden cardiac arrests, the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) notes.
During v-fib, your heart's lower chambers (the ventricles) quiver irregularly and fast instead of beating. The heart is unable to pump blood and, if not treated within a few minutes with an electric shock, the arrhythmia is fatal. CAD, certain inherited disorders, and structural changes in your heart raise the risk for v-fib.
Atrial fibrillation (a-fib) is a common arrhythmia, affecting from 2.7 million to 6.1 million Americans, according to the AHA. In a-fib, your heart’s upper chambers beat irregularly. Sometimes the arrhythmia comes and goes. Sometimes it is chronic.
Unlike v-fib, your heart still pumps blood throughout your body, so a-fib isn’t life-threatening. Because the irregular heart rhythm can cause blood clots to form and enter your bloodstream, however, a-fib does raise the risk for stroke. To reduce stroke risk, people with this type of heart disease usually take blood thinners.
Heart failure doesn’t mean your heart stops
When it comes to types of heart disease, heart failure is one of the most serious. It doesn’t mean your heart stops if you have the condition. Instead, it means your heart fails to pump enough blood and oxygen to support other organs in your body normally.
About 6.5 million U.S. adults have heart failure, the CDC points out. Anything that can damage your heart increases the risk of the condition, including CAD (especially heart attacks), high blood pressure, and diabetes. Lifestyle is also a factor ― smoking, obesity, an unhealthy diet high in fat and salt, and being sedentary all raise your risk of heart failure.
Symptoms of heart failure include:
- Shortness of breath, even with simple daily activities
- Having trouble breathing when lying down
- Swelling in your feet, legs, ankles, or stomach
- Generally feeling tired or weak
Early diagnosis, medication, a low-sodium diet, and a daily activity regimen designed for a patient’s specific physical abilities can help improve both quality of life and how long people live with heart failure.
Heart valve disease: Floppy, leaking heart valves
When your heart beats and moves blood through the heart chambers, the lungs, and the rest of your body, four heart valves open and close. Each valve has a set of flaps (also called leaflets) that normally react to differences in pressure, opening to permit blood to flow in one direction as your heart pumps blood.
Heart valve disease develops when a valve becomes damaged, often from age-related factors, infections (including rheumatic fever and endocarditis), or injuries. The NHLBI points out that certain conditions can stretch and distort heart valves, too, including:
- Long-term high blood pressure and heart failure
- Atherosclerosis in the aorta (the main artery carrying oxygen-rich blood throughout your body)
- Damage and scar tissue from a heart attack
The main sign of heart valve disease is an unusual heartbeat sound called a heart murmur. It’s important to note many people with heart murmurs don’t have valve disease or any other heart problems. Imaging and other tests are used to diagnose heart valve disease.
As heart valve disease progresses, symptoms may develop, including:
- Chest pain with exercise
- An irregular heartbeat
- Dizziness, or fainting in some valve disease (stenosis, or hardening, of the aortic or mitral valves)
Over time, serious valve problems involving a severely leaking or otherwise abnormal valve can cause heart failure, leading to shortness of breath, fatigue, and other symptoms.
Heart valve disease is believed to affect about 2.5 percent of Americans and is sometimes under diagnosed, resulting in about 25,000 deaths a year, according to the AHA. The good news is that heart valve disease is highly treatable. In fact, many heart valve repairs that are possible with minimally invasive procedures.
March 07, 2023