How Does Heart Disease Happen?

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Megan Mendoza By Megan Mendoza | Editor

What Can Cause A Heart Attack?

How exactly does heart disease occur? Most people are familiar with the worst form of it: the heart attack. It happens when something blocks the flow of oxygen-rich blood to a section of heart muscle - making it so that the heart doesn't get oxygen. Usually, heart attacks are a direct result of CHD (Coronary Heart Disease). CHD is a condition which causes plaque - a waxy, oily substance - to build up inside one's coronary arteries. When the coronary arteries are clogged, they fail to supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart.

When an individual has plaque buildup in their arteries, they're said to have a condition called atherosclerosis. Plaque buildup tends to occur over several years. According to research, CHD begins with damage to the inner layers and lining of the heart (coronary) arteries. Of course, build-up of plaque in the blood vessels isn't the only reason a heart could fail. In fact, there are quite a few - below are some of the afflictions that can stop a heart, and a short explanation of how they might happen.

1Infection-Related Heart Disease

Sometimes, the inner membrane which separates the heart's valves and chambers (the endocardium) can be infected, in a condition called Endocarditis. Endocarditis has very common symptoms: Fever, night sweats, and chills - so it's often missed or attributed to another problem. Individuals who suffer from the condition might also have a persistent cough, develop a heart murmur (or have a change in a heart murmur they already have), or feel short of breath. Complications can include heart valve damage, which might lead to arrhythmia (problems with the rhythm of heartbeats) and even heart failure.

Treatment will usually require a high dose of intravenous antibiotics for 2 to 6 weeks. The doses tend to be administered in the hospital, at least for the first week, so the patient can be under observation and a doctor can make sure treatment is working. Some people will need surgery to replace the infected heart valve, particularly if there happen to be complications.

2Valve-Related Heart Disease

Heart valve disease may develop either before birth (congenitally), or throughout an individual's lifetime. Sometimes, it might even happen for unknown causes. Congenital valve disease tends to affect the pulmonic or aortic valve. The valve could be the wrong size, have leaflets which don't attach correctly, or simply have malformed leaflets altogether.

Another kind of valve-related disease is bicuspid aortic valve disease - a valve disease which affects the aortic valves. A bicuspid aortic valve only has two cusps or leaflets, instead of the three, as is usual. Without the third, the valve might be leaky (failing to close tightly) or stiff (failing to open or close correctly). Acquired valve disease happens when a problem develops in valves which were normal once. These might involve structural changes in the valve due to infections or diseases, including endocarditis and rheumatic fever.

3Arrhythmia-Related Heart Disease

A heart arrhythmia (pronounced uh-RITH-me-uh) is simply an abnormal heartbeat rhythm. Heart arrhythmias occur whenever the electrical impulses which coordinate heartbeats fail to work properly, making the heart beat too slowly, too fast, or in an irregular pattern. Heart arrhythmias might feel like a racing or fluttering heart and might be harmless. In some cases, however, arrhythmias can cause bothersome symptoms and signs, or even threaten the person's life.

Heart arrhythmia treatment is often able to eliminate or control irregular, slow, or fast heartbeats. Additionally, it is possible to reduce the risk associated with the problem by adopting a lifestyle which promotes heart health, as troublesome heart arrhythmias can be caused or become even more problematic if your heart is weak or damaged.

4Blood Vessel Related Heart Disease

Cardiovascular disease symptoms are often different for women and men. For example, while women tend to have symptoms such as shortness of breath, extreme fatigue or nausea along with chest discomfort, men are more likely to feel chest pain instead.

Symptoms of a disease in your blood vessels include chest tightness, pressure, pain, and discomfort, commonly known as angina. Afflicted individuals may also feel numbness, coldness, weakness or pain in the legs or arms, pain in the throat, neck, jaw, back or upper abdomen, and shortness of breath.

5Defect-Related Heart Disease

When an individual has a serious congenital heart defect (a defect they're born with), doctors will usually notice it quickly after birth. Symptoms of a heart defect in a child include blue or pale gray skin color (cyanosis) and swelling of the abdomen, legs, or around the eyes. In infants, it may cause shortness of breath when feeding, which may lead to poor weight gain. Congenital heart defects that are less serious might not be diagnosed for years or even decades, being discovered only in adulthood.

Symptoms and signs of congenital heart defects which aren't usually life-threatening include swelling in hands, feet or ankles, getting tired easily during activity and exercise, and getting short of breath easily during activity and exercise. Another ailment is dilated cardiomyopathy (a weak heart muscle). In early stages of the disease, afflicted individuals might have no detectable symptoms. As it worsens, symptoms can include breathlessness at rest or with exertion, fatigue, swelling of ankles, legs or feet, lightheadedness, dizziness, fainting or a heartbeat that feels irregular, rapid, fluttering or pounding.

It can be hard to diagnose a cardiovascular disease - you might have one and not find out until you have a stroke, angina, heart failure or heart attack. For this reason, it is very important that you watch for cardiovascular symptoms and discuss any concerns you might have with a doctor. Cardiovascular disease can often be found early through regular evaluations, and thus be made a lot easier to treat.

Heart disease is much easier to treat if it's detected earlier, so it's important that you talk to your doctor about each and any concerns you might have about your heart health. If you're worried that you might be developing heart disease, make sure to talk to your doctor and ask about steps you might want to take to reduce heart disease risk. This is particularly important if there's a history of heart disease in your family. If you think you have heart disease based on symptoms or signs you've noticed, make an appointment with your doctor as soon as you can.