The term “heart disease” is usually taken to mean coronary heart disease or coronary artery disease. But it can also refer to the wide range of conditions that affect the heart, from problems with how the heart beats (arrhythmias) to diseases of the heart muscle or valves, and even the blood vessels.
You might feel like you hear about heart disease a lot, and that’s for good reason: Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. for most racial groups. And in the following groups of women, heart disease is the second most common cause of death, after cancer:
Asian American and Pacific Islander
To put it in perspective, 1 in every 4 U.S. deaths is caused by heart disease (that’s 655,000 deaths in total). In 2017 alone, 366,000 deaths were caused by coronary artery disease.
The most common type of heart disease is coronary heart disease, or coronary artery disease. It is responsible for conditions like:
Coronary heart disease is caused by something called atherosclerosis. When you have atherosclerosis, a fatty, gritty plaque builds up within blood vessels called arteries. Over time, this makes arteries narrower and stiffer, often causing high blood pressure. The rough surface of the fatty plaque can also break off and cause blood vessel blockages downstream.
Atherosclerosis can happen to arteries anywhere in the body. When it happens to arteries in the neck and brain, it can cause strokes. Atherosclerosis in the arms and legs causes peripheral artery disease. And when the arteries that supply the heart (coronary arteries) narrow and stiffen, it causes angina and heart attacks.
Sometimes, people are born with heart conditions (called congenital heart disease), and sometimes heart disease can’t be avoided (such as with infections that cause heart disease).
More commonly, there are medical conditions or life triggers that increase risk for heart disease. Examples include:
A diet that is high in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt, and sugar
Low levels of physical activity
Regularly drinking more alcohol than is recommended
But that’s not all — other factors play a part too, including your:
Symptoms of heart disease are different for each person and for every diagnosis. But common heart disease symptoms include:
Many types of heart disease — and their risk factors — are silent early on. That’s why it’s so important to learn about heart disease, your own personal risk, and how to balance that risk with positive lifestyle changes and, when needed, medication.
Read on to explore trustworthy, expert-reviewed information on how to keep your heart healthy — whether you have a diagnosis of heart disease or not.
American Heart Association. (2020). Atherosclerosis.
Benjamin, E. J., et al. (2019). Heart disease and stroke statistics—2019 update: A report from the American Heart Association. Circulation.