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What is Heart Disease?

Learn about the different types of heart disease.

Image of a stethoscope next to a pen and keyboard

The term heart disease can be a bit misleading. While the term sounds like one particular disorder, it actually covers multiple conditions that affect your heart. Here, we cover some of the different types of heart disease and what symptoms might come with them.

Types of Heart Disease

It’s easy to overlook how complex an organ your heart is, but its many parts can be affected by many different problems. This means that heart disease can come in many forms. While this list doesn’t cover everything, here are some of the conditions that are considered heart disease:

Aortic Disease

Aortic disease includes:

  • Abnormal bulging in the wall of the aorta (aortic aneurysm)
  • Tearing of the inner layer of the aortic wall (aortic dissection)
  • Hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis)
  • Various inflammatory diseases that restrict blood flow through the aorta (aortic inflammation) and certain types of connective tissue disorders are also aortic diseases.

If left untreated, any of these conditions can be fatal, so those with aortic disease should work with a cardiologist trained to monitor these conditions and determine their most appropriate forms of management.

Arrhythmia

Arrhythmia refers to an abnormal heartbeat. The most common form of arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation (AFib). With AFib, the upper chambers of your heart are out of sync with the lower chambers. This causes your heart to tremble, which often feels like your heart is fluttering or racing.

While AFib itself isn’t fatal, it can lead to other life-threatening conditions such as heart attack or stroke. As AFib is often a symptom of other underlying problems, it’s important for those with AFib to speak with an electrophysiologist — a cardiologist specializing in abnormal heart rhythms.

Cardiomyopathy

Heart disease related to the heart muscle is known as cardiomyopathy. As with the many other types of heart disease, there can be numerous types of cardiomyopathy. The most common types of cardiomyopathy are dilated cardiomyopathy, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and restrictive cardiomyopathy.
Early-stage cardiomyopathy may cause no symptoms. However, some signs of cardiomyopathy may become evident as the condition advances. Some of these symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue, fluttering or pounding of your heart, dizziness or even swelling of your legs or bloating of your abdomen.

Congenital Heart Disease

Heart defects present at birth are referred to as congenital heart disease. These defects are the most common type of birth defects, and many times they go undiagnosed until adulthood. Common types of congenital heart disease include atrial septal defect, coarctation of the aorta, Marfan syndrome, tetralogy of fallot and ventricular septal defect. The nature of these defects varies widely, so symptoms of congenital heart disease are extremely varied.

Technology and modern treatments have improved the lives of children born with congenital heart disease, allowing most to live into adulthood and often into old age. Still, the most effective method for managing congenital heart disease is to consult with a cardiologist specializing in congenital heart disease and be screened regularly for any significant changes.

Coronary Artery Disease

More than 18 million men and women in the United States have coronary artery disease, making this the most common type of heart disease in the U.S. With coronary artery disease, the blood vessels that carry oxygenated blood to your heart muscles (coronary arteries) become clogged with plaque. This makes it difficult for blood to reach your heart muscles, meaning your heart muscles aren’t supplied with enough oxygen to function properly.

Symptoms of coronary artery disease include chest pain and shortness of breath. Severe blockages can lead to a heart attack. For men, a completely blocked artery, resulting in a heart attack, typically causes pain in your left arm or shoulder and severe pressure in your chest. For women, there may be increased chest pressure, but the pain is more likely to be in your neck or jaw.

Heart Failure

Normally, your heart supplies your body’s muscles with the blood and oxygen needed to function. When the needs of those muscles increase, your heart beats faster and harder to meet the greater demand for blood and oxygen. But when your heart is unable to pump as well as it should, your body’s muscles can’t function like they typically do, causing fatigue, shortness of breath or even coughing. This condition is known as heart failure, and it comes in four stages.

Stage A heart failure, or pre-heart failure, is characterized by a high risk of developing heart failure. This is typical of people who have a family history of heart failure or one of the following conditions:

  • Hypertension
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Diabetes
  • History of alcohol abuse
  • History of taking heart-damaging drugs (like some chemotherapy drugs)

Stage B heart failure is the beginning stage of your heart losing its ability to function properly. Known as silent heart failure, this stage tends not to produce any symptoms but can be diagnosed by a cardiologist. The most common method of diagnosing this stage of heart failure is through an echocardiogram (ECG or EKG). Doctors use an ECG to determine how much blood is being pumped out of the lower left chamber of your heart (left ventricular ejection fraction).

Stage C heart failure is when symptoms begin to show. At this stage, those suffering from heart failure begin to experience fatigue and shortness of breath due to the limited amount of oxygen-rich blood being delivered to the muscles of their body. Those with stage C heart failure can also include people being treated for previous heart failure, though they no longer show any symptoms.

Stage D heart failure is the final stage. Those suffering from stage D heart failure may experience difficulty breathing; swelling of their arms, legs, hands and feet; severe fatigue; nausea; persistent coughing and other symptoms. Due to the severity of this stage of heart failure, management of this condition requires specialized treatment, including a heart transplant.

Heart Valve Disease

Your heart has four valves to ensure blood flowing into the heart or out of the heart continues in the appropriate direction. When heart disease is traced to a malfunctioning valve, it’s known as heart valve disease.

While people with heart valve disease may not notice any symptoms for many years, the most common symptoms are chest pain, abdominal swelling, swelling of the ankles or feet, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath and fainting. Their cardiologist might notice an abnormal sound from the heart (heart murmur) while listening to the heart with a stethoscope.

Hypertensive Heart Disease

When we talk about blood pressure, what we’re actually referring to is the pressure inside your blood vessels. If this pressure is too high, your heart must work harder to force blood through the vessels. This is known as high blood pressure (hypertension). Chronic and long-term hypertension can result in a number of problems for your heart. This collection of problems is known as hypertensive heart disease.

Unless it progresses long enough and causes hypertensive heart disease, high blood pressure often occurs without symptoms. When left untreated, high blood pressure can lead to coronary heart disease, thickening of your heart’s left lower chamber (left ventricle), and even heart failure or sudden cardiac arrest. Regular blood pressure screenings can help catch high blood pressure in time to treat it.