Understanding Heart Disease and How to Protect Yourself


Heart disease refers to several conditions that affect the heart’s structure and function. It is a leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. The most common cause of heart disease is narrowing or blockage of the coronary arteries, the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart itself. This is called coronary artery disease and happens slowly over time. It can cause chest pain (angina), shortness of breath, and other symptoms. Heart disease can also refer to disease of the heart muscle itself (called cardiomyopathy), or the valves inside the heart.

The main causes of heart disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking. Major risk factors include diabetes, obesity, a family history, poor diet, and physical inactivity. Treatment may include lifestyle changes, medications, medical procedures or surgery, or cardiac rehabilitation. Key lifestyle changes include eating a healthy diet, increasing physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, managing stress, and quitting smoking. Medications may include drugs to control high blood pressure, lower cholesterol, or prevent blood clots. Procedures done to treat heart disease can include angioplasty, stenting, or bypass surgery.

This article will provide an overview of the common causes, symptoms, diagnosis methods, treatments, and preventive steps for heart disease. It will include details on coronary artery disease, angina, heart attack, cardiomyopathy, and valvular heart disease. The goal is to help readers understand the basics of heart disease and its management.


Coronary artery disease and heart attack risk factors include:

  • Coronary artery disease: Plaque buildup in the coronary arteries can lead to coronary artery disease and heart attack. Plaque is made up of cholesterol deposits, which can restrict blood flow to the heart muscle by physically clogging the arteries.
  • High blood pressure: Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure forces the heart to work harder to pump blood throughout the body. Over time, this can lead to heart disease. High blood pressure stresses the heart and arteries.
  • Diabetes: High blood sugar levels can damage blood vessels and nerves that control heart function. Diabetes also tends to lead to other risk factors like high cholesterol and blood pressure.
  • Obesity: Excess weight typically leads to other risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. It also increases the workload on the heart.
  • Smoking: Chemicals in tobacco smoke damage blood cells and can cause inflammation and plaque buildup in the arteries. Smoking also reduces good cholesterol (HDL) levels.
  • Unhealthy diet: A diet high in sodium, saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol can negatively impact heart health. Not getting enough fiber or nutrients from fruits and vegetables also increases risk.
  • Physical inactivity: Lack of exercise makes the heart work harder to pump blood and can lead to obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and more. Even moderate activity is beneficial.
  • High cholesterol: High levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in the blood causes plaque buildup in the arteries. Low HDL (“good”) cholesterol also increases risk.
  • Family history: Heart disease can run in families, indicating a possible genetic component. Those with a parent or sibling with heart disease are more likely to develop it themselves.


Chest pain or discomfort is the most common symptom of heart disease. You may feel pressure, tightness, pain, or a squeezing sensation in your chest. This pain often occurs in the center or left side of the chest and can spread to the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back.

Other common symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath: You may notice you get winded easily or find it difficult to breathe when lying down. Shortness of breath can occur at rest or with activity.
  • Pain in arms/shoulder: Some people experience pain that radiates down one or both arms. This is often described as aching, heaviness, numbness, or shooting pain.
  • Nausea: Some forms of heart disease can trigger indigestion, nausea, or an upset stomach.
  • Lightheadedness: Heart disease can prevent enough oxygen-rich blood from reaching your brain, causing dizziness or fainting.
  • Heart palpitations: Rapid, fluttering, or pounding heartbeats are common symptoms. Palpitations may feel like your heart is racing, throbbing, or skipping beats.

If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s important to see your doctor. While they can be caused by other conditions, they may indicate an underlying heart problem that requires prompt medical care. Don’t ignore chest pain or other concerning symptoms – get them evaluated as soon as possible.


Diagnosing heart disease often begins with a review of your family and medical history and a physical exam. From there, your doctor may recommend one or more of the following tests to help determine whether you have heart disease and to assess the severity:

Physical exam

Your doctor will listen to your heart with a stethoscope checking for abnormal sounds and examine you to see if there are any signs such as swelling, changes in your pulse, or fluid buildup.

Medical history

Your doctor will ask about any symptoms you are experiencing as well as your risk factors, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, family history of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, lack of exercise, unhealthy diet, and previous illnesses or surgeries.

Blood tests

Blood tests check the levels of certain markers in your blood that indicate heart disease risk factors. These may include cholesterol levels, triglycerides, C-reactive protein, troponin, and brain natriuretic peptide (BNP).


An electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) records the electrical activity of your heart through electrodes attached to your skin. It helps detect abnormal heart rhythms or structural abnormalities.

Stress test

A stress test checks how your heart functions during physical activity. It involves walking on a treadmill or pedaling a stationary bike while your heart rhythm, blood pressure, and breathing are monitored.

Chest x-ray

A chest x-ray takes pictures of your heart and lungs to check for an enlarged heart or fluid buildup in your lungs that could indicate heart failure.

CT scan

A CT scan takes detailed pictures of your heart and blood vessels, looking for calcium deposits, blockages, aneurysms, and other issues.

Cardiac catheterization

Cardiac catheterization involves inserting a long, flexible tube (catheter) into a blood vessel leading to your heart. Contrast dye is injected to highlight the heart and blood vessels in X-ray images. The doctor can also collect blood samples and perform procedures, if needed.


Treatment for heart disease focuses on three main areas: lifestyle changes, medications, and medical procedures or surgery.

Lifestyle Changes

Making healthy lifestyle changes is the first line of treatment for heart disease. This includes:

  • Quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke
  • Eating a heart-healthy diet that is low in saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, sugar, and cholesterol. Focus on eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, nuts, seeds, and omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Losing weight if overweight or obese through diet and exercise
  • Getting regular physical activity for at least 30 minutes per day, 5 days a week
  • Limiting alcohol intake to no more than 1 drink per day for women or 2 drinks per day for men
  • Managing stress through techniques like meditation, yoga, tai chi, or deep breathing

Making these lifestyle modifications can help control blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels which all impact heart health.


If lifestyle changes alone are not enough, medications may be prescribed to treat heart disease. Common medications include:

  • Statins to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol
  • Blood thinners to prevent blood clots
  • Antihypertensives to lower blood pressure
  • Beta blockers to reduce blood pressure and irregular heart rhythms
  • Calcium channel blockers to relax blood vessels and decrease heart rate
  • Nitroglycerin to treat chest pain (angina)
  • ACE inhibitors to lower blood pressure and improve heart function
  • Diuretics or “water pills” to eliminate excess salt and water to reduce blood pressure

It’s important to take medications as directed and discuss any side effects with your doctor. Multiple medications are often needed to comprehensively manage heart disease.

Medical Procedures

If medications are insufficient, medical procedures may be performed. This can include:

  • Coronary angioplasty to open blocked arteries with a balloon or stent
  • Coronary artery bypass surgery to reroute blood around blocked arteries with a graft
  • Implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICD) to regulate irregular heart rhythms
  • Cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT) to coordinate pumping actions of the heart
  • Heart valve repair or replacement surgery if valves are damaged or diseased
  • Heart transplant surgery for end-stage heart failure

Procedures are generally minimally invasive whenever possible. They aimed at improving blood flow, regulating rhythm, or repairing damage to restore normal heart function.

Cardiac Rehabilitation

Cardiac rehab including monitored exercise, education, counseling, and peer support is often prescribed after major procedures or events to aid recovery. This can help build strength, prevent future heart problems, and improve quality of life.

The combination of lifestyle changes, medications, and medical procedures provides a multifaceted approach to managing heart disease and optimizing long-term outcomes. Treatment is tailored to each individual patient based on the severity of their condition, specific needs, and other health factors. Ongoing follow-up care is key.

Lifestyle Changes

Making healthy lifestyle changes can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease. Here are some of the most important lifestyle changes to make:

Healthy Diet

Eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet is critical for heart health. Focus on eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats like olive oil and avocado. Limit saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, sugar, and refined carbs. Eat more fiber, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids from foods like salmon and walnuts. Stay hydrated by drinking water instead of sugary drinks.

Physical Activity

Regular physical activity helps strengthen your heart and control risk factors like high blood pressure and diabetes. Aim for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate activity like brisk walking or 75 minutes of vigorous activity like running. Incorporate both aerobic exercise and strength training. Even small amounts of activity each day can make a big difference.

Weight Management

Being overweight or obese significantly raises your risk of heart disease. Losing even just 5-10% of your body weight can dramatically improve heart health. Focus on creating a modest calorie deficit through diet and exercise. Work with a healthcare provider to develop a healthy, sustainable weight loss plan.

Smoking Cessation

Smoking cigarettes is one of the worst things you can do for your heart. Quitting smoking significantly reduces heart disease risk, even in long-term smokers. Get support to help you stop smoking through counseling, nicotine replacement therapy, prescription medications, or local cessation resources. Cutting out smoking will have rapid, positive effects on cardiovascular health.


There are several types of medications that can be used to treat heart disease:


Statins are a class of drugs that lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in the blood. Some common statins include atorvastatin (Lipitor), rosuvastatin (Crestor) and simvastatin (Zocor). Statins work by blocking an enzyme in the liver that is needed to produce cholesterol. This causes the liver to remove LDL cholesterol from the blood. Statins lower LDL cholesterol levels by 30-50% and can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Beta Blockers

Beta blockers work by blocking the effects of adrenaline, slowing the heart rate and lowering blood pressure. Some beta blockers prescribed for heart disease include atenolol, metoprolol and carvedilol. Beta blockers reduce the workload on the heart and oxygen demand. They also help blood vessels open up which improves blood flow. Beta blockers have been shown to reduce mortality after a heart attack.

Blood Thinners

Blood thinners help prevent blood clots from forming. Common anticoagulant or blood thinner medications include aspirin, clopidogrel (Plavix), warfarin (Coumadin) and apixaban (Eliquis). Blood thinners reduce the risk of strokes, heart attacks and dangerous clots in people at high risk. They prevent platelets in the blood from sticking together and clotting.

ACE Inhibitors

ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) inhibitors prevent angiotensin II from being formed, which narrows blood vessels. This causes the vessels to relax and widen, lowering blood pressure. ACE inhibitors also reduce strain on the heart. Common ACE inhibitors prescribed for heart disease patients include ramipril (Altace), lisinopril (Prinivil, Zestril) and captopril (Capoten).

Calcium Channel Blockers

Calcium channel blockers like amlodipine (Norvasc), diltiazem (Cardizem) and nifedipine (Procardia) work by relaxing the muscles that make up the walls of the arteries. This widens the arteries, increasing blood flow and oxygen to the heart while lowering blood pressure. Doctors often prescribe calcium channel blockers along with other hypertension medications to treat high blood pressure associated with heart disease.


Some procedures used to treat heart disease include:


Angioplasty is a procedure that opens blocked or narrowed coronary arteries. A thin tube with a balloon or other device at its tip is threaded through a blood vessel to the blocked artery. Once in place, the balloon is inflated to compress the plaque against the wall of the artery. This restores blood flow to the heart. A stent, which is a small wire mesh tube, is usually put in place after angioplasty to help keep the artery open.


Stents are expandable metal meshes that are inserted into narrowed arteries to keep them open. They are usually placed during an angioplasty procedure. Over time, the stent becomes covered with cells that help keep the artery open. Drug-eluting stents have medication embedded in them that helps prevent the artery from becoming blocked again.

Bypass surgery

Coronary artery bypass surgery creates a graft bypassing blocked coronary arteries, allowing blood to flow to the heart muscle. This can help relieve angina and reduce the risk of a heart attack. The most common type is coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG). It takes a healthy artery or vein from elsewhere in your body and connects it to the blocked coronary artery, rerouting the blood around the blockage. CABG can improve blood flow to the heart and relieve chest pain.

These procedures all aim to restore blood flow to the heart muscle by opening up blocked arteries. Angioplasty and stents offer a minimally invasive approach, while bypass surgery is more involved but may be better for those with multiple severe blockages. The type of procedure recommended depends on each patient’s specific anatomy and condition. All carry some level of risk but can be very effective at treating coronary artery disease.

Risk Factors for Heart Disease

Certain factors can increase your risk of developing heart disease. The main risk factors include:

  • Age: The risk increases as you get older. Men over age 45 and women over age 55 are more likely to develop heart disease.
  • Gender: Men have a greater risk of heart disease earlier in life than women. However, by age 75 the risk is similar for men and women.
  • Family history: You’re more likely to develop heart disease if you have a parent or sibling who has had cardiovascular disease before age 55 (father/brother) or 65 (mother/sister).
  • Race: Heart disease is more common in African Americans, Mexican Americans, American Indians, native Hawaiians and some Asian Americans. This may be partly due to higher rates of obesity and diabetes in these populations.
  • Stress: Chronic stress is linked to heart disease. Stress over the long term raises heart rate and blood pressure, which strains the heart.
  • Poor diet: A diet that’s high in saturated and trans fats can raise cholesterol levels, increasing your risk of heart disease.
  • Lack of exercise: Insufficient physical activity increases risk of heart disease. Exercise strengthens the heart muscle, lowers blood pressure, raises HDL cholesterol and helps manage stress.


A healthy lifestyle is the best way to prevent heart disease. Here are six key prevention strategies:

  • Eat healthy: Follow a heart-healthy diet that focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, nuts and legumes. Limit saturated fats, trans fats, sodium, sugar and processed foods.
  • Exercise: Get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week. Any activity that raises your heart rate provides benefits, including walking, swimming and biking. Strength training is also important.
  • Maintain healthy weight: Being overweight or obese significantly raises your risk, so losing even modest amounts of weight can improve cardiovascular health. Focus on sustainable changes like portion control and healthy substitutions.
  • Don’t smoke: Smoking dramatically increases your risk and the damage is immediate. Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for your heart and overall health.
  • Limit alcohol: Drinking excessively, especially binge drinking, harms your heart. Women should limit their alcohol intake to one drink per day, while men should restrict themselves to two drinks per day. Avoid alcohol if you have a history of addiction.
  • Manage conditions: Effectively treating conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes greatly reduces your risk. Follow your doctor’s treatment plan, including any medications and lifestyle changes. Monitor numbers closely.

Making heart-healthy choices and managing risk factors can prevent heart disease or delay its progression. Take control of your health!

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