Of all the health problems facing Americans, none pose a greater risk than the No. 1 killer in the United States: heart disease.
According to the most recent statistics from the American Heart Association, heart disease (also known as cardiovascular disease) caused 840,768 deaths in 2016. If there’s any good news here, it’s that deaths from heart disease are down 18.6 percent since 2006. And in the case of coronary heart disease, the death rate dropped 31.8 percent.
In reality, heart disease encompasses a wide range of medical conditions. It can refer to problems with the blood vessels, heart defects that you’re born with, heart rhythm problems and more. The following breakdowns will help you determine the differences among the various kinds of heart disease.
An abnormal heart rhythm is known as an arrhythmia. This occurs when the electrical currents that manage the beating of the heart don’t work the way that they should. Arrhythmias can cause the heart to beat too slowly, too quickly or irregularly.
- Symptoms. An arrhythmia is often noticeable and feels like fluttering, racing or a slow heartbeat. Shortness of breath, fatigue, chest pain, anxiety, sweating, dizziness, and fainting are other possible symptoms.
- Risk factors. Smoking, alcohol and drug use, stress, certain medications, genetics, high blood pressure, extreme exercise, and some medical conditions can all contribute to a person's risk for arrhythmia.
- Treatment. Medications, implantable medical devices, and surgical procedures may all be utilized in the treatment of arrhythmia.
Atherosclerotic Heart Disease
Also known as atherosclerosis or arteriosclerosis, atherosclerotic heart disease occurs when fatty deposits known as plaque clog the arteries leading into the heart. As plaque builds up, it cuts off the flow of blood to the heart. This can sometimes lead to a heart attack, but over time, the reduced blood flow can also cause heart disease as well.
- Symptoms. Chest pain and pressure are the most common symptoms of atherosclerotic heart disease.
- Risk factors. High blood pressure, high triglycerides, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, smoking and inflammation from other diseases all put you at a greater risk.
- Treatment. Eating a healthy diet, regular exercise and weight loss are all steps that can reduce your risk for this form of heart disease. A number of medications, including cholesterol drugs, beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, and ACE inhibitors, also can help. In some cases, surgery to remove or bypass the plaque and open up the arteries may be needed.
Congenital Heart Disease
Congenital heart defects are structural problems that are present at birth. The medical conditions that result from these defects all fall under the umbrella of congenital heart disease. These defects can range from mild alterations to how blood flows into the heart to complex, life-threatening deformities.
Congenital heart disease can obviously impact children at birth. But advances in medical care have allowed many children with congenital heart defects to survive into adulthood.
- Symptoms. Symptoms of congenital heart disease can range widely, depending on the specific type of defect that is present. Common symptoms may include shortness of breath, swelling, fatigue, abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmia) or a bluish tint to the lips, skin or fingernails known as cyanosis.
- Risk factors. In some cases, genetic abnormalities are the cause of congenital heart defects. These can be passed along from parents to their children in some instances. Other congenital heart defects have unknown causes.
- Treatment. Mild forms of congenital heart disease may need to be monitored to ensure that no complications occur. But many congenital heart defects will require corrective surgery or implantable heart devices to make the affected individual's heart work properly.
Hypertensive Heart Disease
Hypertension is the medical term for high blood pressure. If high blood pressure remains untreated over time, it can ultimately damage the heart, causing the condition known as hypertensive heart disease. One common development that occurs with hypertensive heart disease is the thickening of the wall of the left ventricle in the heart.
- Symptoms. Chest pain and symptoms of heart failure, including shortness of breath, fatigue, weakness, irregular heartbeat, palpitations, cough and swelling, can occur with hypertensive heart disease. Headaches may also be a symptom of high blood pressure.
- Risk factors. People at higher risk of hypertensive heart disease include those who are overweight, don't exercise enough, who smoke, or with high cholesterol.
- Treatment. Regular exercise, weight loss, a healthy diet that’s low in sodium and medications can all play a role in managing high blood pressure and preventing hypertensive heart disease.
When the walls that make up the structure of the heart become unusually thick, this is a form of heart disease known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. The condition makes it harder for the heart to pump blood.
- Symptoms. Chest pain, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, heart murmur, and fainting are all possible symptoms of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
- Risk factors. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy most commonly occurs because of a genetic mutation that is passed down from parents to their children but can also develop over time because of high blood pressure or aging.
- Treatment. Medications, surgery and the insertion of an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) are all potential treatments for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
Ischemic Heart Disease or Coronary Artery Disease
When atherosclerosis narrows the arteries to the point that the heart is becoming damaged, this situation is known as ischemic heart disease or coronary artery disease. This starves the heart of oxygen and other nutrients that it requires to work. Ultimately, these conditions may lead to a heart attack.
- Symptoms. Chest pain, pressure, and discomfort are the most common symptoms of ischemic heart disease. In some cases, however, silent ischemia can occur, where ischemic heart disease develops without any symptoms. This can be especially dangerous, as it can raise the risk of a heart attack with no warning signs whatsoever.
- Risk factors. Ischemic heart disease has virtually the same risk factors as atherosclerosis, including obesity, diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high triglycerides.
- Treatment. While diet, exercise and medications can reduce your chances of developing ischemic heart disease, ultimately surgery may be needed to clear the arteries or bypass them to restore a healthy blood flow to the heart.
Rheumatic Heart Disease
Rheumatic heart disease is one of the most common forms of heart disease in children. It can occur as a severe complication of rheumatic fever, which is a disease that can develop when a case of strep throat or scarlet fever goes untreated in a child.
- Symptoms. When rheumatic heart disease occurs, it causes inflammation and scarring of the heart valves. This type of disease can involve such symptoms as muscle aches, headaches, fever, painful joints, a red rash, swollen tonsils, fatigue and chest pain.
- Risk factors. Children with untreated strep throat or scarlet fever or with weakened immune systems may be more susceptible to developing rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease.
- Treatment. Antibiotics, aspirin and corticosteroids all may be prescribed to treat rheumatic fever and prevent the development of rheumatic heart disease.
Valvular Heart Disease
The heart has four valves that control the flow of blood through the different chambers —the tricuspid, pulmonary, mitral and aortic valves. If damage or a defect occurs in one or more of the heart’s valves, this is known as valvular heart disease.
- Symptoms. Heart palpitations, fever, weight gain, dizziness, fainting and fatigue can all occur with valvular heart disease.
- Risk factors. In some cases, valvular heart disease is due to a congenital heart defect. High blood pressure, atherosclerosis, rheumatic fever, bacterial endocarditis, heart attack, radiation therapy and a few other medical conditions can also lead to valvular heart disease.
- Treatment. Some cases can be managed with medications, but corrective surgery may be needed to fix the damaged heart valves.
The Bottom Line on Heart Disease
As the No. 1 cause of death in the United States, the dangers of heart disease are certainly substantial. However, many types of heart disease can be prevented with healthy lifestyle changes. Advances in medicine have also made it possible to successfully treat many forms of heart disease, helping the affected individuals continue to lead a happy life after treatment.
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- Arteriosclerosis/atherosclerosis, Mayo Clinic, 2019. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/arteriosclerosis-atherosclerosis/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20350575
- Silent Ischemia and Ischemic Heart Disease, American Heart Association, 2015. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/about-heart-attacks/silent-ischemia-and-ischemic-heart-disease
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- Heart Arrhythmia, Mayo Clinic, 2019. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-arrhythmia/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20350674