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    Heart disease explained: Signs, symptoms, and how to reduce your risk

    Heart disease explained: Signs, symptoms, and how to reduce your risk

    Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Anyone, including children, can develop heart disease. It affects both men and women and afflicts people from all racial and ethnic groups. Because it affects such a large percentage of the population, it’s important that everyone knows facts about heart disease and signs and symptoms to look out for.

    Types of heart disease

    There are many different types of heart disease with various causes that range from genetic factors to lifestyle choices or health events that can affect the heart, such as damage from infection. Some pre-existing conditions in the body may put an individual more at risk for developing heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. No matter the cause, it’s a good idea to be aware of signs and symptoms of the different types of heart disease so that any potential problems can be caught early and treated appropriately. Here are a few of the most common types of heart disease.

    Coronary artery disease

    Coronary artery disease affects the blood vessels of the heart. Like the pipes in our homes, the arteries around the heart can develop a build-up of plaque that narrow the passage. This narrowing can sometimes cause a complete blockage preventing blood flow to certain parts of the heart, which can lead to a heart attack. While coronary artery disease is often discovered after a person has suffered a heart attack, we should be aware of signs of coronary artery disease that can help lead to early diagnosis and treatment, as well as prevention.

    Signs and symptoms of coronary artery disease include:

    • Chest pain, tightness, pressure or discomfort (also known as angina)
    • Shortness of breath
    • Pain in the neck, jaw, throat or back
    • Nausea (typically specific to women)
    • Extreme fatigue (typically specific to women)


    Patient handout: When chest pain strikes


    Heart problems related to the speed and rhythm of the heartbeat are called arrhythmias. Arrhythmias can cause the heartbeat to be too slow, too fast or irregular. If the rhythm of the heart is ‘off’, it can prevent the heart from having enough force to send the blood out to the rest of the body.

    Signs and symptoms of arrhythmias include:

    • A ‘fluttering’ feeling in the chest
    • Racing heartbeat (tachycardia)
    • Slow heartbeat (bradycardia)
    • Chest pain or discomfort
    • Shortness of breath
    • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
    • Passing out or loss of consciousness

    Heart valve and structural heart disease

    The heart has four valves that help it pump efficiently; structural heart disease includes conditions affecting these valves or the heart tissue. Many structural heart diseases are congenital, which means they were present at birth. Some structural heart disease can develop later in life. When the valves or heart tissues aren’t working properly, the blood isn’t able to flow through the heart and out to the rest of the body. For example, blood can become ‘stuck’ in the chambers of the heart and begin to clot, which puts a person at risk for a stroke.

    Signs and symptoms of heart valve and structural heart disease include:

    • Fatigue
    • Shortness of breath, especially with activity or when laying down
    • Irregular heartbeat
    • Swollen feet or ankles
    • Fainting
    • Abnormal sound (heart murmur) when heard with a stethoscope

    No matter the symptoms, if you suspect that you may be experiencing any of the above, it’s a good idea to get seen quickly by a medical professional for diagnosis and treatment.

    Heart failure

    Heart failure is a condition in which your heart can’t pump enough blood to meet your body’s needs. Usually, this is because your heart muscle is too weak to “squeeze” out enough blood with each beat. But heart failure can also happen when your heart gets stiff and can’t fill up efficiently with blood between each beat.

    Heart failure is found most often in older people, but it can happen to anyone at any age. It’s a serious condition — and also quite common. Many people with heart failure continue to have a full and active life for many years after their diagnosis.

    In many cases of heart failure, initial damage weakens the heart muscle. To compensate, your heart beats faster and enlarges (stretches or thickens) as shown in the image below. Over time, the heart muscle begins to wear out.

    Symptoms of heart failure vary based on the type of heart failure you have. Common symptoms include:

    • Shortness of breath
    • Cough
    • Feeling very tired and weak
    • Weight gain (from fluid buildup)
    • Swollen ankles, feet, belly, lower back, and fingers
    • Puffiness or swelling around the eyes
    • Trouble concentrating or remembering

    The main cause of heart failure (heart muscle damage and weakness) cannot be cured, but symptoms can be well managed. Good treatment and self-care can help keep your symptoms from getting worse.

    Treatment options for heart disease

    Treating your heart disease varies depending on the type, but as a general rule, treatment can include lifestyle changes, medications, and possibly a procedure or surgery. Intermountain Healthcare’s heart care experts work with patients to create a comprehensive and individualized treatment program that may include:

    Lifestyle changes

    • Altering your diet to include plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables and limit the of intake of fats, sugars and processed foods.
    • Regular exercise which helps keep the heart toned and healthy, decreases blood pressure, lowers cholesterol and helps lower blood sugar
    • Smoking cessation: smoking puts us in danger of developing all sorts of illnesses and is a huge risk factor for heart disease. If you’re smoking, stop.


    In many types of heart disease, medications can be extremely useful and therapeutic resources. Medications may be prescribed to:

    • Help manage a pre-existing condition like high blood pressure or high cholesterol
    • Prevent blood clots from forming


    Surgery for heart disease is very specific to the situation in the heart and may be recommended to help improve heart function or repair damage. They range from minimally-invasive procedures that can be performed in a heart catheterization lab to complex open-heart surgery.

    If you have a history of heart disease in your family, or have heart disease, never hesitate to talk to your healthcare provider about any questions or concerns you have.

    Prevention of heart disease

    Regardless of your health history, there are things you can do today to help prevent the development of heart disease. Decades of scientific research have shown the importance of simple lifestyle changes. Examples include:

    • Recent research has shown that eating a plant-based diet can have huge benefits on our overall health.
    • Exercise regularly
    • Don’t smoke/vape or stop smoking
    • Manage pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes
    • Maintain a healthy weight
    • Manage stress and anxiety and don’t be afraid to talk with your doctor
    • Meditation is a hot topic these days, and for good reason! It has been shown to impact our overall health in profound ways

    Does COVID-19 affect your heart?

    The world-wide COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives, including our basic healthcare needs.

    People with heart disease are more at risk for severe complications from COVID-19 including increased hospitalizations and death. Any serious viral infection puts extra stress on your heart. Fever causes the heart to beat faster, and lung infections can limit the heart’s oxygen supply.

    In addition to those currently suffering with heart disease, recent studies show a clear link between heart disease and COVID-19, though the long-term implications largely remain unknown at this time.

    In addition to the health impacts of COVID-19, many other health conditions are going unchecked due to a delay in care as many may worry that visiting a hospital or clinic will put them at greater risk for becoming infected. But please don’t delay getting the care you need. Hospitals are safe places and have strict COVID-19 protocols in place to keep both patients and caregivers safe. Now, more than ever, it’s important to stay on top of our health.

    Additional resources

    Heart care at Intermountain Healthcare
    Learn more about heart conditions, treatment, and detection methods at Intermountain Healthcare

    Intermountain Blog Articles: Heart Health
    A vast resource of heart care related articles to help you take care of your heart and improve your heath.