Understanding Heart Disease
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. But what exactly is it?
The term heart disease is often used interchangeably with cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease generally refers to conditions that involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack, chest pain (angina) or stroke. Other heart conditions, such as infections and conditions that affect your heart's muscle, valves or beating rhythm, also are considered forms of heart disease.
Heart disease is usually caused by a condition called atherosclerosis, which occurs when fatty material and other substances form a plaque build-up on the walls of your arteries. This causes them to get narrow. As the coronary arteries narrow, blood flow to the heart can slow down or stop. This can cause chest pain, shortness of breath, heart attack and other symptoms, usually when you are active.
Symptoms may be very noticeable, but sometimes you can have the disease and not have any symptoms.
Chest pain or discomfort (angina) is the most common symptom. You feel this pain when the heart is not getting enough blood or oxygen. How bad the pain is varies from person to person.
- It may feel heavy or like someone is squeezing your heart. You feel it under your breast bone (sternum), but also in your neck, arms, stomach, or upper back.
- The pain usually occurs with activity or emotion, and goes away with rest or a medicine called nitroglycerin.
- Other symptoms include shortness of breath and fatigue with activity (exertion).
Women, elderly people, and people with diabetes are more likely to have symptoms other than chest pain, such as:
- Shortness of breath
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