According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 647,000 Americans die from heart disease a year — a total of one in every four deaths — making it the leading cause of death in the US.
Heart disease encompasses a range of heart health problems. For example, you may know someone who has had a heart attack, but this is just one of many types of heart disease. Most of the time, heart disease does not display obvious symptoms, which can make it difficult to recognize.
But with routine doctor visits, you can understand your risk for heart disease and work to prevent serious health complications. Here’s what you should know.
Heart disease refers to a group of conditions that directly affect the heart muscle, or the surrounding arteries, which supply the heart with blood. Multiple types of heart disease can occur together, and having one can increase your risk for developing another.
An arrhythmia is when there are irregularities with your heart rate or rhythm. Your heart rate is controlled by the sinus node — a group of cells located on top of your heart that send electrical signals to keep the heart beating properly.
Usually, a normal resting heart rate is around 60 bpm to 100 bpm. If it’s consistently higher or lower, it may indicate that your heart’s electrical system is malfunctioning.
These are the two main types of arrhythmias:
- Tachycardia. This is when your heart beats too fast. It is characterized by a resting heart rate of 100 bpm or more. Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is the most common type, and according to the CDC, about 2.7 to 6.1 million US adults have it.
- Bradycardia. This is when your heart beats too slowly. It is characterized by a resting heart rate of 50 bpm or less. However, in some cases, bradycardia can be a sign of good health, as elite athletes often have resting heart rates as low as 40 bpm.
Coronary heart disease
Coronary heart disease, also known as ischemic heart disease, is when your coronary arteries become damaged over time. It is the most common type of heart disease, and according to the CDC, it led to more than 365,000 deaths in 2017.
Usually, the coronary arteries bring blood to your heart, providing it with oxygen and vital nutrients. But coronary heart disease occurs when cholesterol builds up and narrows these arteries — a process called atherosclerosis — and blocks blood flow to the heart.
A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when blood flow to the heart is interrupted, damaging the heart muscle. According to the CDC, someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds in the US.
About 14% of heart attacks are fatal. Heart attacks are typically not as dangerous as cardiac arrest, which are fatal 89% of the time. Read more about the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest here.
There are often clear signs of a heart attack, such as:
- Oppressive discomfort or heaviness in the chest, often in the center
- This chest discomfort is usually paired with pain in the neck, throat, jaw, or left arm
While anyone can feel these main symptoms of a heart attack, women may be more likely to feel other, more subtle symptoms. This chart breaks down the difference in heart attacks signs for males and females:
If you think you or someone you know is having a heart attack, you should call 911 and seek medical attention immediately.
However, about 20% of heart attacks don’t have any clear symptoms — this is called a silent heart attack — and may go entirely unnoticed.
Congenital heart disease
Congenital heart disease is when you are born with a heart defect. While there are many different types, it is mainly the result of poor heart valve or blood vessel development while in the womb.
According to the CDC, about 1.4 million US adults and 1 million children are living with congenital heart disease. While people with congenital heart disease don’t always show symptoms, doctors look for signs like a heart murmur, or abnormal blood flow through the heart for a diagnosis.
Heart failure, or congestive heart failure, is when your heart function deteriorates over time and no longer pumps blood efficiently. It often occurs in people with coronary heart disease who have ignored treatment for years.
However, heart failure does not mean that your heart has stopped beating. According to the CDC, about 6.5 million US adults live with the condition.
Most of the time, heart disease develops without any obvious symptoms. That’s why it’s important to visit your doctor for routine check-ups, as they’d be able to determine whether you might be at risk.
In fact, the signs of a heart attack are sometimes the only symptoms of heart disease. But some people may feel less oppressive chest pain at other times. This is called angina, and it often occurs after physical exertion, getting worse over time as your heart disease develops.
But it can be difficult to know if your chest pains are serious and symptomatic of heart disease. For example, indigestion or heartburn, as well as anxiety, can produce chest pain that may be mistaken for angina or a heart attack.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is when blood pumps too forcefully, hardening your arteries and leading to decreased blood flow to the heart. About 70% of people having their first heart attack will have hypertension. Learn more about the risks of high blood pressure here.
A doctor will be able to measure blood pressure readings at a routine check-up. These numbers can help indicate your risk for developing heart disease:
High cholesterol can also limit blood flow through a disease called atherosclerosis, which is the build-up of plaque in your arteries. Atherosclerosis is one of the main causes of coronary artery disease, the most common type of heart disease.
The following factors can lead to high blood pressure or high cholesterol, and greatly increase your risk for heart disease:
- Lack of exercise. It’s important to keep your heart pumping, and if you don’t exercise regularly, a sedentary lifestyle can raise blood pressure and cholesterol and make heart disease more likely.
- Unhealthy diet. Eating foods that are high in saturated and trans fats, as well as sodium, can raise blood pressure and cholesterol. In addition, frequently skipping meals like breakfast can be bad for your heart.
- Alcohol use. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can negatively affect the heart, though moderate use may have some heart health benefits.
- Smoking. Cigarette use is one of the main predictors of heart disease. And while the jury is still out on what marijuana does to your heart, experts believe that smoking any substance can increase risk.
- Chronic stress. Over time, stress may contribute to a heart attack. Sudden stress also can cause takotsubo cardiomyopathy, which feels like a heart attack, but the artery isn’t actually blocked.
- Lack of sleep. Consistently getting less than seven hours of sleep each night can increase your risk for heart disease.
- Genetics. While high blood pressure is influenced by genetics, high cholesterol can often be fully genetic, known as familial hypercholesterolemia.
Other underlying health conditions — such as obesity, diabetes, and kidney disease — can also increase your risk for heart disease.
- Exercise regularly. Aim for 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity every day. A combination of stretching exercises, strength training, and aerobic exercise (cardio) throughout the week is recommended.
- Lose weight. Excess weight makes your heart work harder. In fact, cutting just 5% to 10% of your body weight can lower your cholesterol and blood pressure, helping to ease the burden on your heart.
- Eat healthier. Foods that can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol include leafy green vegetables, whole grains, and fish. Both the DASH diet and Mediterannean diet are recommended for heart health.
- Quit smoking. Research has found that giving up cigarettes can reduce your risk of heart disease by 39%.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for heart disease. But if you’ve been diagnosed, there are many ways to treat your condition and manage a healthy life.
It will be necessary to get regular physical activity, maintain a healthy weight, and adopt eating plans and other lifestyle habits that keep your blood pressure and cholesterol under control.
Many people will also need the help of medication or surgery to prevent more serious health complications, or death.
These medications are prescribed to treat different aspects of heart disease:
In advanced cases of heart disease, you may need surgery to fix blocked arteries or an irregular heartbeat. Here are the most common and effective surgical procedures for heart disease:
- Stent. This small tube is placed to prop open an artery during an angioplasty, a minor surgery that is often used to restore blood flow after a heart attack. Follow our guides to prepare for stent surgery and recover from the procedure.
- Pacemaker. This small device is implanted in your chest and sends electrical signals to the heart in order to correct any irregularities. You may need it if you have an arrhythmia, such as bradycardia, or a slow heartbeat.
- Bypass surgery. Coronary artery bypass grafting, or bypass surgery, is used to redirect blood flow around a blocked artery. It’s one of the most common operations in the US and is used to treat coronary heart disease. Follow our guides to prepare for bypass surgery and recover from the procedure.
Heart disease is the biggest killer in the US, but it doesn’t have to be. To reduce your risk for serious health complications, it’s important to take your heart health seriously.
That means routinely checking in with your doctor about blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and following the guidelines for a heart healthy lifestyle. Medical experts know how to fight against heart disease, and by following these recommendations, you can, too.