Heart Disease


While we talk about “heart disease” as if it it’s one specific disease, it’s really an umbrella term that covers many unrelated conditions. Most people, when speaking of heart disease, actually mean cardiovascular disease (another umbrella term), which usually refers to conditions that include narrowing or blockage of blood vessels. However, “heart disease” covers everything from coronary artery disease to congenital heart defects. In other words, heart disease is a huge topic. 

Types of heart disease include:

Cardiovascular disease


  • Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
  • Coronary artery disease (narrowing and/or blockages of the arteries leading to the heart)
  • Peripheral artery disease or PAD


Arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythm)


  • Atrial fibrillation


Heart defects


  • hole in the the heart muscle


Disorders of the heart valves


  • Aortic stenosis
  • Mitral valve prolapse



(thickening or stiffening of the heart muscle or enlargement of the heart)


Infections of the heart


Just as there are many disorders and diseases that fall under the umbrella term of “heart disease,” there are many different symptoms. Different conditions may produce different symptoms. Below are some of the most common symptoms of different types of heart disease.


Cardiovascular disease

If you have cardiovascular disease, you may not be aware of it until you have a heart attack or stroke, or begin experiencing angina. Common symptoms of cardiovascular disease include:

  • Chest pain
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Chest discomfort (angina)
  • Pain in the neck or jaw
  • Pain in the abdomen or upper back
  • Nausea
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain, numbness and tingling, or weakness in the arms or legs (symptoms of PAD)

Men and women may present with different sets of symptoms. Women, for example, are more likely to experience shortness of breath or fatigue, while men are more likely to have chest pain.



An arrhythmia is an abnormal heart beat—it may be too fast, too slow, or erratic and “out of time.” Common symptoms include:

  • A “fluttering” feeling in your chest
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Abnormally slow heartbeat
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Breathlessness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting


Heart defects

Most heart defects are present at birth. If they’re serious, they’re usually discovered soon after. Symptoms of serious heart defects include:

  • Greyish or blue-tinted skin (due to lack of oxygen)
  • Swelling in the legs
  • Swelling in the abdomen
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath during feedings
  • Poor growth

Heart defects causing these symptoms can be life-threatening. Less serious defects might not be diagnosed till later, sometimes not until adulthood. Common symptoms of less serious heart defects can include:

  • Lack of energy/getting tired easily with activity
  • Shortness of breath during activity
  • Swelling in the hands, feet, or ankles


Disorders of the heart valves

The heart is divided into four compartments, with four valves leading from one compartment to another. These valves keep blood flowing in the right direction through the heart, and when they are diseased this can allow backflow or other problems. Symptoms depend on which specific valve has a problem, but can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Breathlessness
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Swollen ankles/feet
  • Chest pain
  • Lightheadedness or fainting


Disorders of the heart muscle

Thickening, stiffening, and/or weakening of the heart muscle may not be obvious to begin with. But as the condition worsens, it may cause the following symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath, during activity OR when resting
  • Swelling of the hands, feet, or legs
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness and fainting


Infections of the heart

Like other infections, heart infections may be accompanied by fever. Other symptoms can include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Abnormal heart rhythm
  • Dry cough/cough that won’t go away
  • Rash
  • Swelling in abdomen or legs/feet


Fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, and swelling of the feet and ankles are symptoms common to many types of heart disease. If you have any of these symptoms on a regular basis, or if they appear with no explanation, speak to your doctor right away. Also see our article Surprising Signs that You Might Have a Heart Problem.

Different types of heart disease may have different triggers, and in many cases the true cause is still unclear. There are, however, a variety of factors that can increase your risk of heart disease. These include:

    • Age. The older you are, the greater the likelihood of cardiovascular disease of any type (have a look at our article “having a dog may cut your heart attack risk“). Age also increases the risk of cardiomyopathy or disorders of the heart muscle.


    • Sex. In general, men are more likely to suffer from heart disease and post-menopausal women have a greater risk than younger women.


    • Family history. Whether because of genetics, familial behaviors, or some other factor, a family history of heart disease means you’re more likely to develop coronary artery diseases. The risk is even greater if a close female relative (mother or sister) developed the disease before age 65 or close male relative (father or brother) before age 55.


    • Smoking. Smokers are more likely to have a heart attack or to develop atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).


    • Some cancer treatments. Certain types of chemotherapy or radiation treatment increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.


    • High blood pressure. Chronic high blood pressure can lead to hardening and narrowing of the arteries.


    • Inflammation. Systemic inflammation is strongly linked to many types of chronic disease including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Stress levels, sleep, and diet, and other aspects of lifestyle play a role in generating inflammation.


    • Poor diet. Although the link between saturated fat and heart disease has been fairly well-debunked in recent years, other dietary components and habits have not. Overconsumption of processed foods, excess sugar, and other poor dietary habits can raise your risk of heart disease.


    • Sedentary lifestyle. Lower levels of physical activity are linked to higher rates of cardiovascular disease.


    • Stress. Prolonged stress damages the cardiovascular system, and chronic stress is an independent risk factor for many types of heart disease and complications thereof.


    • Poor dental hygiene. Gum disease greatly increases your risk of heart disease.


Heart disease is serious business, and its complications are often life-threatening or even fatal. Complications of heart disease include:


Heart attack.

  • Heart attacks occur when blood flow to the heart is cut off, usually due to a blood clot in an artery leading to the heart. When the blood supply is cut off, heart muscle begins to die; the severity of the heart attack depends on how large an area of the heart is affected and how long the muscle goes without blood flow.



  • An ischemic stroke is similar to a heart attack but affects your brain. In this type of stroke, one or more blood vessels in your brain becomes blocked by a clot, cutting off blood flow and oxygen to part of your brain. Brain cells in that part of your brain begin to die within minutes, making prompt medical attention critical. In cases of stroke, seconds count.


    Heart failure.

  • This is one of the most common complications of heart disease, and can be the result of many different types of heart disease from heart defects to cardiovascular disease or even infections. In heart failure, your heart is simply unable to pump as much blood as your body needs.



  • An aneurysm is a bulging, weakened spot in an artery wall. An aneurysm can occur anywhere in your body and may go completely undetected unless and until it ruptures. A burst aneurysm can cause life-threatening or even fatal internal bleeding. In the brain, it can cause a hemorrhagic stroke.


    Sudden cardiac arrest.

  • In plain English, sudden cardiac arrest means that your heart simply and suddenly stops working. It often occurs due to an arrhythmia, and is often fatal even if treated immediately. Sudden cardiac arrest is the most common cause of death due to heart disease.

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    Heart Disease
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    While we talk about “heart disease” as if it it’s one specific disease, it’s really an umbrella term that covers many unrelated conditions
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