Easy Guide To: Cardiovascular Disease

Genetic Tests

Heartfelt Facts
Half a million American women die every year from heart disease.

Heart Disease In Women


What Is Heart Disease?
Is It Mainly A Man's Problem?

Main Types of Heart Disease

Coronary Heart Disease (CHD)
Arrhythmia - Irregular Heart Beats
Congestive Heart Failure
Congenital Heart Defects
Narrowed Valves
Heart Disease Caused By Infections


Angina Attack
Circulatory System
Coronary Heart Disease
Chest Pain in Women
Congestive Heart Failure
Heart Arrhythmia
Heart Attacks in Women
High Blood Pressure
Stroke in Women

Guide To Heart Disease

Risk Factors
UK Stats
USA Stats
Heart Disease in Pregnancy
Living With Heart Disease
Books On Heart Disease

Types of Heart Tests

Heart Disease Testing
Calcium Score Test
C-Reactive Protein Test
Chemical Stress Test
Coronary Angiography
Event Monitor
Exercise Stress Test
Heart Catheterization
Holter Monitor
Nuclear Heart Scan

Treatment Options

Coronary Angioplasty
Heart Bypass Surgery
Thrombolytic Therapy
Natural Remedies
Chelation Treatment
Cardiac Rehabilitation
Cardiac Rehab Exercises
Home Cardiac Program

Related Topics

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How does the blood clot?

What Is Heart Disease?

Heart disease is an umbrella term used to describe any disease or disorder which affects the heart's ability to function normally. So if a condition damages either the heart itself or the veins and arteries supplying it with blood, it is called heart disease. One of the most common types of heart disease is coronary heart disease (CHD), which is characterized by blockages in the heart's (coronary) arteries. Other conditions which fall under the general term heart disease include heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias), congenital heart defects and heart infections like endocarditis and rheumatic fever. Every year in America, heart disease accounts for 1 in 4 of every deaths.

Is It Mainly A Man's Problem?

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that 16.7 million people die from heart disease every year around the globe. About 8.6 million of those are women. In fact heart attacks and stroke deaths are responsible for far more deaths in women than all cancers combined. Despite this, there is still a myth that heart disease is a problem from which women are somehow exempt. Considering 2.5 million American women are hospitalized for cardiovascular disease every year, it flies in the face of reality. Nearly half a million women in America die annually from heart disease and nearly 50 percent of those are from coronary artery disease (CAD). In addition, an estimated 300,000 are living with congenital heart defects. Despite these figures, there has been little research into the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of cardiovascular disease in women. Until quite recently most heart disease research only focused on men. Researchers felt that women's hormones and menstrual cycle would only cause complicated variables in any results and older women were excluded because they tended to have more 'coexisting' illnesses (other medical problems unrelated to heart disease such as arthritis or osteoporosis). What researchers failed to understand was that understanding all these factors could help to understand how heart disease manifests itself in women. Although many of the risk factors for heart disease are the same between men and women, such as smoking, diabetes, obesity and genetics, there are also major differences between the sexes. These differences are medical, social and biological. This is discussed in detail in our article coronary heart disease in women.

Heart Disease Statistics
UK Heart Disease Statistics

What Are The Main Types of Heart Disease?

Coronary Heart Disease (CHD)

The term CHD is often used interchangeably with coronary artery disease (CAD), although CAD is in fact just one type of CHD (albeit by far the main type). CHD can have other causes such as coronary vasospasm. To make things simple for the purpose of this article we will assume however that CAD and CHD refer to the same thing. CHD is a disease of the coronary arteries, that is, the blood vessels which directly surround and supply the heart with blood. The most common cause of disease of these arteries is atherosclerosis (image). Atherosclerosis is a gradual process whereby over many years excess cholesterol and fat from the blood are dumped along the lining of the arteries. Gradually the buildup of of debris causes the arteries to become narrow and restricts blood flow. When blood flow is restricted not enough oxygen can be delivered to the heart which can cause chest pain, particularly during physical activity when the need for oxygen is higher. This is why angina is often regarded as a precursor (a warning sign) to CHD. If a piece of this fatty material breaks away from the artery it is known as a clot. The clot can travel along the artery until it reaches another narrowed passage. If the clot is large enough it can become stuck and block blood flow completely. This is how a sudden heart attack happens. In 2006 there were nearly 18 million reported cases of CHD in America. Atherosclerosis however is not just limited to the coronary arteries. It can occur in any of the arteries of the body. For example, if it occurs in the arteries that supply the brain it can cause a stroke or if it occurs in the arteries of the legs or arms it can lead to poor circulation.


Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a condition where the left ventricle of the heart (the pumping chamber) becomes thickened and stiff making it difficult for the heart to 'relax' and fill with blood. This means it is harder for the heart to pump blood around the body. It is a major cause of sudden death in young athletes during rigorous exercise who otherwise seem perfectly healthy. Death usually occurs due to a blockage of blood leaving the heart or because of abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias). Many people with cardiomyopathy have no symptoms and it is only diagnosed on autopsy. Others may experience shortness of breath, light headedness, fainting during physical exertion, chest pain or fluttering heartbeats. If it is detected early enough (by wearing a 24 hour Holter monitor) it can be treated with heart disease drugs such as beta blockers and calcium channel blockers. Cardiomyopathy has many causes including high blood pressure and CHD. It can also be an inherited condition, so women from families where several members have died from sudden heart problems should consult a doctor. Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) is where the muscle of the heart wall becomes thin and floppy (dilated). This weakens the muscles and makes it difficult to pump blood around the body. Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy (ARVC) is a condition which usually only affects the right side of the heart. The muscle is gradually replaced with fatty tissue, weakening the heart and its ability to pump blood. Peripartum cardiomyopathy can sometimes develop in women within a month of delivery and childbirth. While many women recover quite quickly, others go on to rapidly develop the more severe DCM.

Arrhythmia - Irregular Heart Beats

Any abnormality in the rate of a person's heartbeat is called a heart arrhythmia. The heartbeat may be faster or slower than normal, or may even be occasionally skipped. Any irregularities with a person's heart rate (also known as rhythm) should be investigated because it can be an indication of heart disease. Sometimes however the cause is quite benign, like strenuous exercise or drinking too much coffee. In fact 15-25 percent of women with arrhythmia find it is occurs during and is connected with pregnancy, time of the month and premenstrual syndrome (PMS) - and not heart disease. A person with arrhythmia may complain of faintness, fatigue and black outs. Heart palpitations, the medical term to described a skipped or racing heart beat may also be experienced. Others however experience no symptoms at all. There are many causes of arrhythmias, some more serious than others, including heart failure (weakened heart muscles), imbalances in blood electrolytes; and high epinephrine levels. Abnormal heart rhythms can also result from use of certain drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines and alcohol as well as thyroid disorders. There are many different types of arrhythmias, some more worrying than others. They include atrial fibrillation (AF), premature contraction, paroxysmal atrial tachycardia (PAT), ventricular tachycardia (VT), ventricular fibrillation (VF) and bradycardia. Certain types of arrhythmia are more associated with women than men and these include PAT; Sinus Node Dysfunction (also called sick sinus syndrome) and Long QT Syndrome.

Learn about: Heart disease testing and womens health questions

Congestive Heart Failure

Congestive heart failure (also known as heart failure) occurs when the heart fails to adequately pump out blood. While the heart receives blood as it should, due to some mechanical failure in the heart itself, it cannot pump adequate supplies back out again. This results in a back up of blood (congestion) in the veins that supply blood to the heart. As the blood builds up, fluid seeps out of the small veins (called capillaries) into the body's tissue. This causes swelling called edema. If swelling occurs in the lungs it is called pulmonary edema, and if it occurs in other parts of the body like the legs and ankles it is called systemic edema. Congestive heart failure can be caused by a mechanical problem in the heart’s valves, or by arrhythmia disturbances, damage to the heart muscles through long term high blood pressure or because of a heart attack. In women it tends to be less related to CHD than in men. Those who suffer long-standing hypertension or diabetes are more prone to developing the disease. The main symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue, weakness and swelling. Although there is no cure for most cases of congestive heart failure, steps can be taken to ensure that patients can live a relatively normal life.

Congenital Heart Defects

A congenital heart defect refers to a physical problem in the heart's structure which is already there at birth. Congenital means present at birth. There are many types of defects, the most common being Atrial Septal Defect (ASD) or hole in the heart. 36,000 babies are estimated to be born with a heart defect every year in America (see birth defects). Defects can occur as a result of the fetus developing abnormally in the womb or due to a genetic disorder such as Down syndrome. Other causes may never be identified. Certain environmental factors however appear to contribute to a baby developing abnormally in the womb, particularly if the mother is exposed to them within the first 3 months of pregnancy. These include rubella (German measles) and other viral infections such as flu. Some types of congenital defects will heal naturally without treatment over time, while others require surgery and other forms of medical treatment. Over the past few years medical advancements have greatly increased the chances of babies born with serious defects of surviving into adulthood and living active lives. Most adults with complex heart defects do however require special healthcare throughout their lives and they need to give special consideration to common place issues such as contraception, pregnancy, choice of occupation and health insurance. There are about 1 million adult Americans currently living with heart defects. The most common types of defects include:

Hole in the Heart (Septal Defects)
The septum is the wall which separates the left and right chambers of the heart. If there is a hole in the septum, blood flows and mixes between the two chambers causing problems.

Atrial Septal Defect (ASD)
This is a hole in the part of the septum that separates the upper chambers (atria) of the hearts. A hole allows oxygen rich blood to flow from the left side to the right, instead of the other way around as it should. Many children born with this condition display no symptoms.

Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD)
This is a hole in the septum area that separates the lower chambers of the heart (ventricles).

Narrowed Valves

A heart valve is like a little doorway which opens and closes, allowing blood to flow in and out of the heart. These doors are very important for controlling the amount of blood allowed to pass through and when they close they stop blood from flowing back again. Narrowed valve is a condition where a mechanical problem in one or more of the valves exists. Common symptoms of the condition include breathlessness, swelling in the ankles and feet and extreme fatigue. Some people however never experience symptoms. The main causes of heart valve disease are congenital heart defects, rheumatic fever, cardiomyopathy, getting older, previous infection with endocarditis and damage to the heart muscles due to a heart attack. Treatment options include drugs and surgery, although many only need treatment if symptoms worsen.

Heart Disease Caused By Infections

Pericarditis is an irritation and swelling of the thin layer of skin (membrane called pericardium) that surrounds the heart. It is usually short lived but can cause chest pain similar to angina or sharp enough to feel like a heart attack. This condition is more common in younger people and is usually caused by a viral infection that starts with a cold. It can also result from viruses which cause influenza, chicken pox, mumps, rubella and hepatitis B. Although the symptoms can be quite painful and dramatic, pericarditis is not considered dangerous. It usually clears after one to three weeks.

Endocarditis is an inflammation of the inner lining of the heart (endocardium). The inflammation is usually caused by a bacterial infection. Common symptoms include chills, fever and excessive sweating. It may also cause abnormal urine color, joint pain, weakness, weight loss, shortness of breath and weakness. It is most likely to occur in people with a history of congenital heart disease or intravenous drug use. It may also occur in those who had rheumatic fever or recent dental work. Treatment normally requires hospitalization and antibiotics through an IV. If treated early enough the prognosis is good. If not, complications can occur such as stroke and severe heart valve damage.

Rheumatic Fever
Rheumatic fever is an inflammatory disease which can develop as a complication if a streptococcus bacterial infection (such as scarlet fever or strep throat) is not treated properly. It can cause heart valve damage as well as joint, skin and brain problems. Fortunately it is not common in the US; the last outbreak occurred in the 1980s. Symptoms include fever, abdominal pain, cardiac problems (shortness of breath or chest pain), joint swelling, skin rash or nose bleeds (epistaxis). It is treated with antibiotics. Those with strep throat should contact their doctor to ensure that it does not develop into rheumatic fever.

Angina Attack
Coronary Heart Disease
Chest Pain
Congestive Heart Failure
Heart Arrhythmia
Heart Attacks
  Other Useful Guides

Recommended Health Screenings For Women: List for every decade.
A Woman's Body: Guide to how the female body works.
Head And Face Conditions: How heart problems affect this area.
Chest Conditions: Check your symptoms.
Hospital Departments Explained: Learn how to get about a hospital.
Bone and Joint Problems: How the heart affects legs and arms.
Lymphatic System: Works in conjunction with the circulatory system.
Female Health Questions: Hundreds of Q&As on popular topics.

Return to Homepage: Womens Health Advice

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