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Heart Disease

What is Heart Disease?

The term “heart disease” describes a range of diseases affecting the heart and blood vessels, including coronary heart disease, heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias), and heart defects.

Coronary heart disease —also known as coronary artery disease—is the most common type of heart disease in the United States, striking more than 15 million people, according to the American Heart Association. Coronary artery disease is also the leading killer of men and women. It is an expensive disease; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that, in 2010, heart disease will cost the United States $316.4 billion in health care services, medications, and lost productivity.

Coronary artery disease happens slowly over time in a process called atherosclerosis. Coronary arteries that supply the heart muscle can become narrow and hard from a buildup of plaque – a combination of fat, cholesterol, and other substances. As coronary arteries narrow, blood flow to the heart can slow down or stop, causing chest pain, shortness of breath, heart attack, or other symptoms.

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Risk Factors

Many factors raise the risk of developing coronary artery disease ; the more risk factors an individual possesses, the greater the chance of developing heart disease. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute lists the following conditions as risk factors:

  • Unhealthy blood cholesterol levels
  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Overweight or obesity
  • Metabolic syndrome (a group of risk factors linked to obesity and overweight)
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Age
  • Family history of early heart disease

Other factors that also may contribute to coronary artery disease include stress, alcohol, and sleep apnea.

While many believe coronary artery disease is primarily a man’s disease, in fact, it is the number-one cause of death and the leading cause of disability among women in the United States.

Lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy diet, reducing weight, easing stress levels, stopping smoking, and increasing physical activity can help decrease the risk of developing heart disease. Medications used to treat coronary artery disease include anticoagulants, aspirin and other antiplatelet medicines, ACE inhibitors, beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, nitroglycerin, statins, and supplements high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish oil.

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Recent Research and News on Heart Disease at The Scripps Research Institute

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Links to General Heart Disease Information

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