Heart disease is a group of cardiovascular disorders that affect the heart's ability to function normally and effectively.  Of all the people that die any given year in the U.S., heart disease kills more than a quarter of them. That equaled 631,636 people in 2006, the latest year calculated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Types of Heart Disease

The most common type of heart disease is coronary artery disease (CAD), which occurs when the coronary arteries narrow or become blocked. Some types of heart disease include:

  • arrhythmia
  • congenital heart disease
  • acute mitral regurgitation
  • pulmonary stenosis
  • unstable angina

Causes of Heart Disease

Heart disease can be caused or complicated by the following factors:

  • high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • birth defects
  • abnormally functioning heart valves
  • abnormal heart rhythm
  • weakening of the heart's ability to pump
  • diabetes

Heart Disease Symptoms

Because of the many different kinds of heart diseases, symptoms can vary. Signs of heart problems can include: 

  • rapid, slow, or irregular heartbeat
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • lightheadedness
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • sensations in your arms or legs, including pain, weakness, numbness, or coldness

Risk Factors

Many risk factors for heart disease can be controlled and managed, while some such as age, sex, and family history cannot. Risk factors for heart disease include:

  • being over the age of 50
  • family history
  • smoking
  • high stress
  • being overweight
  • sedentary lifestyle
  • diet high in fat, salt, and cholesterol
  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • poor hygiene

Tests & Treatments

Doctors use several types of tests to determine which type of heart disease is present, including:

  • blood tests
  • X-rays
  • ultrasounds
  • electrocardiogram (ECG)
  • heart monitors (holter monitor or event monitor)
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • cardiac computer tomography (CT) scan
  • echosonogram

Treatments for heart disease are aimed at reducing cholesterol levels and opening narrowed arteries and other coronary impairments. Depending on the severity of the condition, treatments could include surgeries (repair damaged valves, clear blockages, etc.) and/or medications (statins, diuretics, beta blockers, etc.), but in almost every case a doctor will recommend lifestyle changes such as proper diet, exercise, quitting smoking, reducing caffeine intake, and abstaining from alcohol. 

View the Heart Disease Learning Center for more information.