What is heart disease?

Heart disease is a broad term that implies something is wrong with the heart. In most cases, we are talking about coronary artery disease. As cholesterol plaques build up in the arteries that supply the heart muscle, the flow to the muscle is reduced. If a clot forms in this area of narrowing, a heart attack occurs. The resultant area of dead heart muscle is replaced by scar tissue that is not functional. The heart contracts with less force, and a person's exercise capacity may be compromised.

The most important factor in your heart's health and ability to pump more blood is its blood supply—the efficiency of your coronary arteries to transport blood to and from your heart. The most common barrier to that supply is coronary artery disease, or CAD, in which the arteries become narrowed or blocked. When that happens, your heart muscle weakens from lack of blood.

Another way to think about your heart and vascular system is by picturing a subway or train system. Your heart is the main station, the hub, the place through which all trains must travel. The arteries and veins are the tracks and tunnels—the pathways that flow throughout your body, dropping passengers (blood) to stations all over your body (the Saturday evening train toward those Jockeys is especially crowded).

Now, if there's a break in the tracks—or some kind of obstruction that won't let the trains through—customers get irate. If that blockage goes on long enough, it can put some organs right out of a job. In your body, a station without blood is a station that will shut down—and could shut down many stations around it. If that Saturday train doesn't make it to its final destination, for example, that's impotence.

Luckily, you can control your arteries' health through what you eat, how you exercise, and how you respond to social and environmental stresses. You have the power to make your heart, the most life-giving organ in your body, both stronger and younger.

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Disease of the heart and the blood vessels—which includes arteries and veins—is cardiovascular disease, also called heart disease.

This includes numerous problems, many of which are related to a process called atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a condition that develops when a cholesterol deposit or plaque builds up in the walls of the arteries. This buildup narrows the arteries, making it harder for blood to flow through. If a blood clot forms at the site of the build up, it can stop the blood flow. This can cause a heart attack or stroke.

A heart attack occurs when the blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked by a blood clot. If this clot cuts off the blood flow completely, the part of the heart muscle supplied by that artery begins to die. Most people survive their first heart attack and return to their normal lives to enjoy many more years of productive activity. But having a heart attack does mean you have to make some changes. The doctor will advise you of medications and lifestyle changes according to how badly the heart was damaged and what degree of heart disease caused the heart attack.

Dr. Douglas S. Jacoby, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Cardiac disease, including mitral and aortic valve disease, occurs when there is any disorder preventing the heart from functioning normally. The heart muscle may become damaged or circulation may become blocked and therefore restrict the heart from pumping enough oxygen-rich blood to meet the body’s needs.

Dr. Samin K. Sharma, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Heart disease can mean one of several conditions including coronary heart disease. In this video, Dr. Samin Sharma, MD, a leading cardiologist at The Mount Sinai Medical Center, explains the differences.

Heart disease refers to the various conditions that compromise the heart and vascular system’s abilities to pump blood in and out of the body’s passageways. As the body ages, the heart’s functioning begins to decline, pumping blood at slower rates and taking in less oxygen during strenuous activities. This decline puts older adults at a greater risk for heart attacks, heart disease, hypertension and stroke.

Dr. Sameer A. Sayeed, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Heart disease is a pretty broad term that covers a wide array of disease. It can mean disease that primarily affect the arteries supplying the heart, disease that affect the heart muscle itself, disease that affect the lining around the heart, disease that affect the electrical system of the heart or a combination of all four. It includes coronary artery disease or damaged, blocked coronary arteries. Heart attack is also a form of heart disease, as is heart failure. Infiltrative heart diseases such as amyloidosis and sarcoidosis and hemachromatosis are also heart disease. Pericarditis whether acute or chronic involving the lining around the heart is also a heart disease. Heart disease can also include damage to the heart from pregnancy, chemotherapy and radiation. Damage to the electrical system of the heart from heart attack, age-related degeneration, Lyme disease or coronary artery disease is also heart disease.

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is a disease of the heart's blood vessels that, if untreated, can cause heart attacks.  It stems from coronary artery disease (CAD), also known as ischemia. With CAD, plaque grows in the coronary arteries and eventually limits  the blood flow to the heart, resulting in CHD. Like any muscle, the heart needs a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients that are carried to it by the blood in the coronary arteries. When the coronary arteries become narrowed or clogged and cannot supply enough blood to the heart, the result is coronary heart disease.

Coronary heart disease—often simply called heart disease—occurs when the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle become hardened and narrowed due to a buildup of plaque on the arteries' inner walls. Plaque is the accumulation of fat, cholesterol, and other substances. As plaque continues to buildup in the arteries, blood flow to the heart is reduced. Heart disease can lead to a heart attack. A heart attack happens when an artery becomes totally blocked with plaque, preventing vital oxygen and nutrients from getting to the heart. A heart attack can cause permanent damage to the heart muscle. Heart disease is one of several cardiovascular diseases, which are diseases of the heart and blood vessel system. Other cardiovascular diseases include stroke, high blood pressure, and rheumatic heart disease.

This answer from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has been reviewed and/or edited by Dr. William D. Knopf.

Heart or cardiovascular disease is a blanket term that actually covers different diseases of the heart and vascular systems of the body. The types of heart disease are:

  • Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common form of heart disease. CAD is caused when the coronary arteries that supply the heart with oxygen and nutrients become narrowed or clogged. This can cause chest pain (angina), heart attack (myocardial infarction) and even sudden death.
  • Congestive heart failure occurs when the heart muscle is weakened and is no longer able to pump blood effectively. The most common symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue or swelling of the legs. Congestive heart failure is often the result of damage to the heart muscle caused by a heart attack.
  • Cardiac arrhythmia, or abnormal heartbeat, can be health-threatening if it keeps the heart from pumping efficiently. If this is the case, then an arrhythmia can contribute to congestive heart failure or even cause sudden cardiac death.
  • Stroke is caused when blood vessels bringing blood to the brain become narrowed or clogged.
  • Peripheral vascular disease (PVD) is very similar but occurs in the arteries of the legs.
  • Valvular disease refers to damaged or malfunctioning valves of the heart, and an aneurysm is the abnormal widening, or bulging, of an artery due to a weakened arterial wall from severely clogged and hardened arteries.
Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

Coronary heart disease is caused by the buildup of plaque in the arteries to your heart. This may also be called hardening of the arteries.

  • Fatty material and other substances form a plaque build-up on the walls of your coronary arteries. The coronary arteries bring blood and oxygen to your heart.
  • This buildup causes the arteries to get narrow.
  • As a result, blood flow to the heart can slow down or stop.

Heart disease is a condition in which the heart cannot efficiently pump blood. Coronary artery disease is one type of heart disease. It occurs when the arteries that nourish the heart muscle narrow or become blocked. This can lead to a heart attack. People with diabetes have a higher risk than the general population for developing heart disease.

Heart disease—also called cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease—is a simple term used to describe several problems related to plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries, or atherosclerosis. As the plaque builds up, the arteries narrow, making it more difficult for blood to flow and creating a risk for heart attack or stroke. There are many steps you can take to help prevent heart disease, but they all require being proactive and taking action to control your risk factors.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.