What is heart disease?
Heart disease is a number of abnormal conditions affecting the heart and the blood vessels in the heart.
Types of heart disease include:
Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common type and is the leading cause of heart attacks. When you have CAD, your arteries become hard and narrow. Blood has a hard time getting to the heart, so the heart does not get all the blood it needs. CAD can lead to:
- Angina. Angina is chest pain or discomfort that happens when the heart does not get enough blood. It may feel like a pressing or squeezing pain, often in the chest, but sometimes the pain is in the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back. It can also feel like indigestion (upset stomach). Angina is not a heart attack, but having angina means you are more likely to have a heart attack.
- Heart attack. A heart attack occurs when an artery is severely or completely blocked, and the heart does not get the blood it needs for more than 20 minutes.
Heart failure occurs when the heart is not able to pump blood through the body as well as it should. This means that other organs, which normally get blood from the heart, do not get enough blood. It does NOT mean that the heart stops. Signs of heart failure include:
- Shortness of breath (feeling like you can't get enough air)
- Swelling in feet, ankles, and legs
- Extreme tiredness
Heart arrhythmias are changes in the beat of the heart. Most people have felt dizzy, faint, out of breath or had chest pains at one time. These changes in heartbeat are, for most people, harmless. As you get older, you are more likely to have arrhythmias. Don't panic if you have a few flutters or if your heart races once in a while. If you have flutters AND other symptoms such as dizziness or shortness of breath (feeling like you can't get enough air), call 911 right away.
How do I know if I have heart disease?
Heart disease often has no symptoms. But, there are some signs to watch for. Chest or arm pain or discomfort can be a symptom of heart disease and a warning sign of a heart attack. Shortness of breath (feeling like you can't get enough air), dizziness, nausea (feeling sick to your stomach), abnormal heartbeats, or feeling very tired also are signs. Talk with your doctor if you're having any of these symptoms. Your doctor will take a medical history, do a physical exam, and may order tests.
What can I do to prevent heart disease?
You can reduce your chances of getting heart disease by taking these steps:
Know your blood pressure. Your heart moves blood through your body. If it is hard for your heart to do this, your heart works harder, and your blood pressure will rise. People with high blood pressure often have no symptoms, so have your blood pressure checked every 1 to 2 years. If you have high blood pressure , your doctor may suggest you make some lifestyle changes, such as eating less salt (DASH Eating Plan) and exercising more. Your doctor may also prescribe medicine to help lower your blood pressure.
Don't smoke. If you smoke, try to quit. If you're having trouble quitting, there are products and programs that can help:
- Nicotine patches and gums
- Support groups
- Programs to help you stop smoking
Ask your doctor or nurse for help. For more information on quitting, visit Quitting Smoking.
Get tested for diabetes. People with diabetes have high blood glucose (often called blood sugar). People with high blood sugar often have no symptoms, so have your blood sugar checked regularly. Having diabetes raises your chances of getting heart disease. If you have diabetes, your doctor will decide if you need diabetes pills or insulin shots. Your doctor can also help you make a healthy eating and exercise plan.
Get your cholesterol and triglyceride levels tested. High blood cholesterol can clog your arteries and keep your heart from getting the blood it needs. This can cause a heart attack. Triglycerides are a form of fat in your blood stream. High levels of triglycerides are linked to heart disease in some people. People with high blood cholesterol or high blood triglycerides often have no symptoms, so have your blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels checked regularly. If your cholesterol or triglyceride levels are high, talk to your doctor about what you can do to lower them. You may be able to lower your cholesterol and triglyceride levels by eating better and exercising more. Your doctor may prescribe medication to help lower your cholesterol.
Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight raises your risk for heart disease. Calculate your Body Mass Index (BMI) to see if you are at a healthy weight. Eat a healthy diet and exercise at a moderate intensity for at least 30 minutes most days of the week. Start by adding more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to your diet. Take a brisk walk on your lunch break or take the stairs instead of the elevator.
If you drink alcohol, limit it to no more than one drink (one 12 ounce beer, one 5 ounce glass of wine, or one 1.5 ounce shot of hard liquor) a day.
Find healthy ways to cope with stress. Lower your stress level by talking to your friends, exercising, or writing in a journal.