What is heart disease?
Although often referred to as one condition, cardiovascular or heart disease is a group of conditions, all impacting the structure and/or function of the heart and blood vessels. Heart disease alone can cause symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath and chest pain which decrease quality of life. However, the major concern with a diagnosis of heart disease is the elevated risk of having a cardiac event such as a heart attack or stroke.
Types of heart disease
Below are some common forms of heart disease in North America.
- Heart failure develops when the heart becomes damaged through infection, injury or a previous heart attack and the capabilities of the heart are decreased. The heart loses the ability to pump blood with as much force as it once could and it can result in decreased blood flow to the body and fluid buildup in the legs and lungs.
- Coronary artery disease is the most common kind of heart disease. It is caused by blockages in the blood vessels of the heart. Blockages here can lead to a heart attack and chest pain.
- Peripheral vascular disease occurs when there is a lack of proper blood flow through blood vessels in the body.
- Congenital heart defects are issues in the heart that someone is born with. Heart defects include structural changes in the valves, muscles or blood vessels in and around the heart. Through infection or injury, the structure of the heart can also be damaged.
- Arrhythmias are caused by changes in the rhythm of the heart. Either the heart beats too slowly, quickly or in uneven patterns. This change in the beat of the heart can disrupt the blood flow out to the body.
- Endocarditis or myocarditis are caused by inflammation of the heart (endocardium and myocardium). Heart inflammation is usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection.
How is heart disease diagnosed?
There are several medical tools used to diagnose heart disease. Blood tests are used to measure risk factors for heart disease such as cholesterol levels, inflammatory markers and signs of damage to the heart. Physical exams assessing pulse rate, blood pressure, and heart sounds can help your doctor learn more about your heart health. Knowing your family history of heart disease can also be useful to assess your risk.
Other tests such as electrocardiograms, echocardiograms, ultrasounds, stress tests and Holter monitors may be used to measure how your heart is functioning.
Heart disease often starts to develop years before someone becomes symptomatic. If you are over the age of 40 and have not had a recent cardiovascular screening or at least discussion with your healthcare provider, it may be time to check in.
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