What is Heart Disease?

Date:

February 25, 2023

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

What is Heart Disease

Heart disease is caused by atherosclerosis (ath-uh-roh-skluh-roh-sis), which is the buildup of fatty deposits, or plaques, in the walls of the coronary arteries over many years.

The coronary arteries surround the outside of the heart and supply blood nutrients and oxygen to the heart muscle. When plaque builds up inside the arteries, there is less space for blood to flow normally and deliver oxygen to the heart. If the flow of blood to your heart is reduced by plaque buildup or is blocked, if a plaque suddenly ruptures, it can cause angina (chest pain or discomfort) or a heart attack. When the heart muscle does not get enough oxygen and blood nutrients, the heart muscle cells will die (heart attack) and weaken the heart, diminishing its ability to pump blood to the rest of the body. Find out more about heart attacks.

Signs of Heart Disease

Early heart disease often doesn’t have symptoms or the symptoms may be barely noticeable. That’s why regular checkups with your doctor are important.

Contact your doctor right away if you feel any chest pain, pressure, or discomfort. However, chest pain is a less common sign of heart disease as it progresses, so be aware of other symptoms. Tell your doctor if you have:

  • Pain, numbness, and/or tingling in the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back
  • Shortness of breath when active, at rest, or while lying flat
  • Chest pain during physical activity that gets better when you rest
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Headaches
  • Cold sweats
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, stomach, and/or neck
  • Reduced ability to exercise or be physically active
  • Problems doing your normal activities

Problems with arrhythmia are much more common in older adults than younger people. Arrhythmia needs to be treated. See a doctor if you feel a fluttering in your chest or have the feeling that your heart is skipping a beat or beating too hard, especially if you are weaker than usual, dizzy, tired, or get short of breath when active.

If you have any signs of heart disease, your doctor may send you to a cardiologist, a doctor who specializes in the heart.

Medical Tests for Heart Disease

Your doctor will check your blood pressure and do a fasting blood test to check your cholesterol, a type of fatty substance that can contribute to plaques in your arteries. He or she might also do a blood test to check the levels of proteins that are markers of inflammation in the body and suggest you have an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG). This test looks at electrical activity in your heart. A chest x-ray will show whether your heart is enlarged or your lungs have fluid in them; both can be signs of heart failure. The doctor might do a blood test for brain natriuretic peptide (BNP), a hormone that increases in heart failure. If the cardiologist needs to determine your heart or valve function, he or she may order an echocardiogram, a painless test that uses sound waves to produce images of your heart in motion.

To learn more about heart disease, visit the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Health Tips for Older Adults

Infographic Health Tips for Older Adults

Sources: National Institute on Aging, Heart Health and Aging, & American College on Cardiology Health Tips for Older Adults


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