What Do They Mean by “Heart Disease”?

Healthy Living

February 23, 2021

When you hear the phrase “heart disease,” you might think only about heart attacks. But this phrase actually covers a broad range of cardiovascular issues that affect the heart.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease kills about 655,000 Americans every year. That’s 1 out of every 4 deaths. And it happens to men and women at about equal rates, too.

Considering the wide range of heart problems and the grim statistics on heart disease, learning more about the various types may help you stay alert. Here’s what “heart disease” can cover.

Coronary Artery Disease

Atherosclerosis is a condition in which plaque, a mixture that includes fat and cholesterol, accumulates in your blood vessels. As the buildup increases over time, the passageway for blood becomes smaller and smaller. Think of it like a river getting polluted along the banks or a tunnel getting littered with trash.

Once your arteries have hardened, it’s known as coronary artery disease (CAD). And once the buildup and reduced blood flow begin to affect the heart muscle, it can be called coronary heart disease.

CAD is the leading cause of heart-related deaths in the U.S.. It killed nearly 366,000 Americans in 2017 alone.

And while it’s not common among people under age 65, coronary artery disease can affect anyone. About 20% of CAD deaths affect adults under age 65.

Plaque buildup might start in childhood and continue for a lifetime. And during adulthood, factors like high cholesterol, smoking and diabetes can exacerbate the problem. Doctors typically diagnose CAD in men older than 45 and post-menopausal women.

Heart Attack

Coronary artery disease can lead to a heart attack. This occurs when a piece of arterial plaque becomes dislodged and surrounded by a blood clot. The clot may block the artery so that blood can’t reach the heart. 

Without quick treatment, the heart muscle will be starved of oxygen and can suffer permanent damage or die.

Over 800,000 heart attacks happen in the U.S. every year. And about three-quarters of them occur in people who have never had a heart attack before.

Symptoms of a heart attack demand immediate medical attention. They may include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Chest pain
  • Back or arm discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue

Note: this article is for information only. Seek medical attention immediately if you think you’re having a heart attack or aren’t sure. Call 911.

But while some heart attacks cause dramatic symptoms, around 20% are considered silent, meaning that you might not even know it’s happening. Women are particularly prone to silent attacks.

If you notice subtle symptoms like upper-body discomfort or overwhelming fatigue that could be related to a heart condition, these may be symptoms of a heart attack. Always check in with your doctor for sudden, unexplained symptoms, especially if they get worse.


Your heart is a muscle. It can thicken or grow larger over time. Conditions affecting the heart muscle are known as cardiomyopathy.

Cardiomyopathy can disrupt the normal functioning of the heart and lead to fatigue, breathing problems, heart palpitations and even death.

People of any age, including children, can develop cardiomyopathy. 

One type, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, is known for causing sudden death in seemingly healthy young people. Another variety, restrictive cardiomyopathy, presents more often in males and Blacks than other demographic groups. It’s also the version that’s most often diagnosed in young people.

Genes play a role in many cases of cardiomyopathy. Infections and other medical conditions can contribute, too. Lifestyle factors include drug and alcohol abuse.

There isn’t a cure for cardiomyopathy, but treatment can help you manage the condition and keep your heart as healthy as possible.


When your heart doesn’t beat with a proper rhythm, it’s called arrhythmia. This category of heart conditions includes:

  • Tachycardia, which is a beating pattern that’s too fast, and 
  • Bradycardia, which is too slow

Not all arrhythmias are obvious, but some people do experience symptoms. They can include being short of breath or dizzy. You might experience pain in your chest or feel like your heart is racing. Some people faint.

Risk factors for arrhythmia include sleep apnea, diabetes, and alcohol or tobacco use. A sedentary lifestyle and a poor diet can also contribute.

Not all arrhythmias are critical, but it’s always a good idea to get them checked out. 

For one thing, arrhythmias can be associated with other heart problems, such as coronary artery disease and high blood pressure. Also, untreated arrhythmia can leave you more susceptible to heart failure or a stroke.

Valvular Heart Disease

The heart has four valves. Valvular heart disease occurs when one or more doesn’t function like it should.

There are a few different types of valvular disease. Regurgitation, for example, is when a valve doesn’t create a tight seal. Stenosis occurs when the opening of the valve is constricted. Valves can also be missing a component. 

Any type of valvular disease can be detrimental to how efficiently the heart pumps blood.

Some valvular disease is genetic. Other times, it stems from other heart conditions or even untreated strep throat infections. Valvular heart disease is most common in senior citizens, especially those who may not have received antibiotics for childhood strep infections.

A doctor may diagnose this condition with the discovery of a heart murmur during an exam.

Other signs of valvular disease include tiredness, breathing difficulties, chest discomfort and dizziness. Medications may keep symptoms under control, but you might need surgery depending on the situation.

Congenital Heart Defects

Some people are born with heart defects that arise during fetal development. These are congenital conditions, meaning present at birth. Examples of congenital heart defects (CHDs) include, among others:

  • Hypoplastic left heart syndrome
  • Pulmonary atresia
  • Tetralogy of Fallot

Causes of these conditions vary. Genetic or chromosomal factors might play a role, as can the pregnant mother’s health or the overall environment.

Some CHDs are mild, and symptoms may not be obvious.

But around 25% of heart defects are critical. Doctors usually diagnose critical CHDs within the first year of life, sometimes even before birth. And these conditions may require surgery early.

Heart Infections

Bacteria, viruses or parasitic fungi can infect your heart, too. Endocarditis is a situation in which an infectious microorganism leads to inflammation of the heart’s lining.

Heart infections are most common in older adults. If you’ve had previous heart problems or a heart valve replacement, you may be more susceptible to infection. Other risk factors include poor dental care, an indwelling catheter and past IV drug use.

Heart infections may clear up with medication. In some cases, though, you might need valve surgery.

Heart Failure

The phrase “heart failure” doesn’t describe one individual condition. Instead, it’s used to describe any number of situations in which the heart’s functionality is reduced.

It happens as a result of other cardiovascular problems. 

Heart attacks are a key cause of heart failure. Cardiomyopathy and heart failure are also closely linked. Other contributing factors include high blood pressure, infections, valvular disease and diabetes.

Treatment for heart failure varies depending on the underlying conditions that caused it. Some cases may require medication or surgery. But improving your lifestyle choices can make a difference as well.

In fact, exercising, eating a balanced diet and avoiding tobacco are some of the best choices you can make for long-term heart health. Whether you’re at the peak of health or have been diagnosed with a cardiovascular condition, your heart will benefit from a healthy lifestyle and regular contact with your doctor.