What Is Heart Disease (and Why Is It So Dangerous)?

Here's what happens to your body when heart disease strikes.

Every part of your body requires oxygen to function. Your blood vessels trace all the way down to the tips of each finger and toe, enriching the body with oxygen and nutrients for proper functioning. Blood circulation through the body is guided by your heart, which pumps oxygenated blood throughout the vessels.

For someone with heart disease, this process is a bit more challenging. Heart disease, particularly the form known as coronary artery disease (CAD), is the most common cause of death in the United States. Heart disease kills more people every year than cancer.

CAD is caused by a gradual buildup of plaque in the arteries, known as atherosclerosis. This buildup narrows and hardens the arteries, which makes it more challenging for oxygen-rich blood to travel from your heart to all the tissues of the body. This plaque can form as a result of eating high-fat, high-cholesterol foods, as well as smoking cigarettes.

Usually, certain physical and sexual activities will demand increased blood flow, and healthy arteries will expand to allow more blood to travel. However, for someone with coronary artery disease, the hardened arteries will not be able to expand as necessary.

When this demand for blood flow is not met, a person with heart disease will experience angina, or chest pain. The plaque can also break off and get stuck in the constricted arteries, forming a blood clot and causing a heart attack. Because of this, heart disease (especially CAD) is a dangerous condition.

CAD is known as a “silent” condition because it may not present many symptoms, at least in the beginning. However, common symptoms include a pressure or tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, and extreme fatigue, and all of these symptoms are worse during physical activity or stress. Some patients with CAD, particularly women, also report weakness, dizziness, cold sweats, and sleep disturbance.

The most dangerous symptom of heart disease is a heart attack, which creates a crushing, squeezing pressure in the chest.

Though family history and genetics most certainly play a role, heart disease is also considered a lifestyle disease because it is frequently associated with your diet, exercise habits, and other behaviors. These tips from a nutritionist are specifically designed to prevent and manage diabetes and lower cholesterol.

Paul Knoepflmacher, MD

This video features Paul Knoepflmacher, MD. Dr. Knoepflmacher is a clinical instructor of medicine at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, where he also maintains a private practice.

Duration: 4:07. Last Updated On: Nov. 8, 2017, 6:14 p.m.
Reviewed by: Suzanne Friedman, MD . Review date: Dec. 14, 2016
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