A man holding his chest
There are many causes of heart disease. Some are based on lifestyle choices, and others are hereditary.

What is Heart Disease?

Your heart is a muscle designed to pump blood around the body, and if the heart stops working, there is trouble on the horizon. Many types of heart disease exist. However, knowing what you can do to keep your heart safe will help prevent some types of heart disease.

Heart disease is also sometimes referred to as cardiovascular disease. These are a range of conditions that can affect your heart, and each have their own causes and symptoms. Conditions that affect the structure or function of the heart can involve narrowing or blockage to blood vessels, which can result in a heart attack.

Let’s take a deeper look at what exactly heart disease is, risk factors, symptoms, and treatment options.

Heart Disease Statistics

To emphasize the impact of heart disease, here are some quick facts:

  • Cardiovascular disease is the second leading cause of death in Canada
  • 31 percent of global deaths are due to heart disease
  • About one in 12 Canadian adults over age 20 have a diagnosed heart disease
  • Every hour, about 12 Canadian adults over age 20 with a diagnosed heart disease die
  • Over one billion adults globally have raised blood pressure
  • Only one in five adults have their blood pressure under control
  • Men are twice as likely to suffer a heart attack than women

The Heart’s Function

The heart’s job is to pump blood through the body as the it beats in order to send oxygen and nutrients to different parts of your body, and to remove waste. There are four valves in the heart: the tricuspid, mitral, pulmonary, and aortic. The valves only open one way, and they only open when required.

Proper function of the heart means these valves need to open all the way at the right time, and close tightly so there is no leakage or mixing of oxygenated blood and de-oxygenated blood. Damage to the valves and the structure of the heart can be caused by several sources, depending on the type of cardiovascular disease that is present.

Causes of Heart Disease

Different types of heart disease are caused by different factors. Some are due to lifestyle choices, whereas others are unfortunately out of our control. We’ve broken down four types of heart disease, and what causes each one.

Coronary Heart Disease

This is the most common type of heart disease. Damage to the heart or blood vessels occurs when there is a buildup of fatty plaque in your arteries (a disease called atherosclerosis). This plaque thickens and causes an obstacle for oxygenated blood to flow through your arteries to your organs and tissues.

Contributing factors include smoking, high levels of fats and cholesterol in the blood, high blood pressure, and high levels of sugar in the blood. If the condition gets severe enough, it can result in a heart attack, stroke, and even death.


Heartbeats that are irregular—too slow or too fast—are the result of congenital heart defects (you’re born with these), coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, excessive use of alcohol/caffeine, drug abuse, stress, medications, dietary supplements, herbal remedies, and valvular heart disease.

Congenital Heart Defects

These physical deficiencies in the structure of the heart develop while the baby is still in the womb. The defects progress as the heart develops and can change the flow of blood in the heart, form holes in the heart chambers, obstruct blood flow, and form abnormal blood vessels, to name a few issues.

These defects can be the result of genes, diabetes, consuming alcohol while pregnant, taking certain medications, or smoking. You may not be aware of any defects until after the child is born.

Heart Infection

Common causes of infection include bacteria, viruses, and parasites in the blood. Heart infections occur when an irritant reaches the heart muscle, bringing inflammation and other symptoms such as pain and heart damage. These infections are often short-lived.

Risk factors of Heart Disease

There are many different risk factors for developing heart disease. Again, some are related to lifestyle choices (so you can take preventative measures), but others are out of our control. If your family has a history of heart disease, for example, it’s likely that you will too.

Common risks include:

  • Age: As you age, you develop a higher risk for damaged and narrowed arteries (as you have had more time to build up plaque over the years) and weakened or thickened heart muscle.
  • Sex: Generally speaking, men are at greater risk for heart disease than women. After menopause, women’s risk of heart disease increases as well.
  • Genetics: A family history of heart disease increases your risk of coronary artery disease, but it does not guarantee that you will experience heart disease in your lifetime.
  • High blood pressure: Uncontrolled high blood pressure can thicken your arteries and narrow the area for blood flow.
  • High blood cholesterol: High levels of cholesterol can increase the formation of plaque and constrict proper blood flow.
  • Unhealthy diet: Taking care of your heart is a great reason to stick to a healthy diet. Avoiding diets which are high in fat, salt, sugar and cholesterol can reduce the development of heart disease. Poor diets may lead to obesity, and this excess weight can amplify other risk factors for heart disease.
  • Lack of exercise: A shortage of physical fitness is associated with many forms of heart disease.
  • Smoking: Nicotine constricts blood vessels. Studies show that heart attacks are more common in smokers than non-smokers.
  • Diabetes: Having diabetes increases the risk of heart disease. There are similar risk factors for diabetes and heart disease, such as high blood pressure and obesity.
  • Stress: High stress can manifest physically and worsen other risk factors for heart disease.
  • Other factors include consuming too much alcohol, taking birth control, or hormone replacement therapy.

Types of Heart Disease

There are several types of heart disease, which include blood vessel diseases (like coronary artery disease) and heart defects you’re born with. Other conditions that are included under the umbrella of heart disease are conditions that affect your heart’s muscle, valves, or rhythm.

Here are some of the more common types of heart disease:

  • Coronary artery disease is the most common type of heart disease. It presents itself when there is an obstruction that occurs in the arteries that causes blockage or narrowing. It is the cause of most heart attacks and angina (chest pain caused by inadequate blood flow).
  • Vascular disease is caused by issues in other blood vessels which reduce blood flow. Proper function of the heart is affected when blood flow is reduced.
  • Structural heart disease is caused by deformities of the heart’s structure. This can include congenital defects, the result of infection, or structures either wearing out or breaking down. Parts that surround or make up the heart, such as valves, walls, muscles, and blood vessels may be affected by a structural defect.
  • Heart rhythm disorders, such as arrhythmias, disrupt blood flow because the heartbeat is either too slow, too fast, or irregular.
  • Heart failure, like a heart attack, is a serious condition that develops after damage happens to the heart muscle. There is no cure for heart failure, but early intervention, medication, and lifestyle changes can help prevent it from happening.

Heart Disease Symptoms

As there are many types of heart disease, there are many symptoms that can be exhibited. You might not be diagnosed with heart disease until you have a medical event such as heart attack, stroke, or heart failure.

Pay particular attention to what your body tells you, and if you exhibit symptoms listed below, be sure to consult with your physician to make sure you’re keeping your heart healthy.

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Symptoms of Heart Disease in your Blood Vessels

With this type of heart disease, you’re likely to feel chest pain or pressure in your chest cavity. It may be hard to catch your breath, or you experience shortness of breath. If the blood vessels in your limbs are narrowed, you’ll feel pain, tingling, or coldness in your arms and legs. You may also feel pain in somewhere unexpected like your neck, jaw, back, or top of the abdomen.

Symptoms of Arrhythmias

For those with abnormal heartbeats, symptoms include chest pain, a fluttering in the chest, tachycardia (rapid heartbeat) or bradycardia (slow heartbeat), shortness of breath, and light-headedness that may result in fainting or the feeling that you may faint.

Symptoms of a Heart Defect

Heart defects aren’t usually apparent until after a baby is born. Shortly after birth, babies may have a pale blue/grey skin color, shortness of breath during feedings, and swelling in the legs, abdomen, and area surrounding the eyes.

Less serious defects may not be uncovered until later in childhood, or even adulthood. Symptoms that may indicate a heart defect later in life may be shortness of breath during activity and tiring easily during those activities. There may also be swelling in the hands and feet.

Symptoms of Heart Infection

This one may be a little trickier to associate with a heart issue since several symptoms don’t seem to indicate a heart problem such as fever, fatigue, dry or persistent cough, and skin rashes. This type of heart disease may also come with shortness of breath, swelling in the legs or abdomen, and changes in heartbeat.

Heart Disease Treatment

Many people live well-rounded lives, even if they are affected by heart disease. Heart disease can be managed effectively with a combination of lifestyle changes, medication, and sometimes surgery.

Lifestyle Changes

The biggest changes you can make for heart health are switching to a healthy diet, getting enough exercise, and stopping smoking. These small adjustments will reduce your future risk of heart disease. Taking care of yourself should be done thoughtfully, so make sure you’re including your doctor in the conversation before making any drastic lifestyle changes.


Medications usually aim to reduce blood pressure or widen arteries. Be sure to review any potential side effects and get the advice of your doctor before starting or stopping heart disease medication.

Common medications include:

  • Antiplatelets are used to thin your blood and prevent it from clotting and enable it to pass through narrowed arteries a bit easier.
  • Statins lower your cholesterol by blocking the formation of cholesterol and increasing the number of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) receptors in the liver. This helps remove LDL cholesterol from your blood, reducing the risk of heart attack.
  • Calcium channel blockers decrease blood pressure by relaxing muscles that make up the walls of your arteries.
  • Beta-blockers are used to prevent angina and treat high blood pressure.
  • Nitrates widen blood vessels by relaxing them which allows more blood to pass through.
  • Diuretics flush excess water and salt from the body through your urine.

Surgery and Other Procedures

Surgery should only be used if heart disease symptoms can’t be controlled through medication or lifestyle changes.

Some of the more common procedures are:

  • Coronary angioplasty (balloon angioplasty): Physicians insert a small balloon to push fatty tissue in the narrowed artery outwards, allowing blood to flow with less resistance. A metal stent (essentially a wire mesh tube) is usually placed in the artery to hold it open.
  • Coronary Artery Bypass Graft (bypass surgery): When arteries have become narrowed or blocked, surgeons insert a blood vessel between the aorta and part of the coronary artery beyond the blocked area to allow blood to get around (bypass) the narrowed sections of coronary arteries.
  • Heart Transplant: When the heart is severely damaged and medications aren’t working well enough, or the heart is unable to pump blood effectively around the body (heart failure), a heart transplant may be needed.

Heart Disease Prevention

The best thing you can do for your heart is to take care of yourself. Most types of cardiovascular disease can be avoided or eased through the pursuit of healthy living. A great place to start is getting your diet and weight under control. Switch to a diet that is low in salt, saturated fats, and trans fats; you can see a dietitian or nutritionist for advice if you’re unsure.

Try to get in some form of physical activity most days out of the week. Stress has been known to exacerbate health issues, so if you’re mentally or emotionally worn down, focus on your well-being to get your stress levels under control. If you have any other health conditions, like high cholesterol, diabetes, or high blood pressure, see your doctor to get those under control too.

There are many types of heart disease out there. Do what you can to be healthy and prevent cardiovascular issues from happening before they start. You only have one heart, and you need to treat it kindly.