What is heart disease?

Having heart disease comes in many different forms, but in general there are four main categories in adults – coronary artery disease, heart failure, valvular heart disease and arrhythmia.

1.  Coronary artery disease

The most common type of heart problem in Australia. The coronary arteries are tubes which supply blood to the heart muscle itself, and blockages here can lead to heart attacks. A reduction in blood flow is called ischaemia, so this condition is also known as ischaemic heart disease.

2. Heart failure

Heart failure means that the heart’s function can’t match the requirements of the body. Unlike the other groups mentioned, the term ‘heart failure’ doesn’t describe a specific condition – instead, it describes a group of symptoms and signs that go together, such as shortness of breath or swelling in the legs. Heart failure can range from very mild to life threatening. Generally, heart failure happens because

  • the heart can’t do enough for the body
    • there is a problem with the heart muscle
      • the heart can’t squeeze enough (systolic heart failure, or heart failure with reduced ejection fraction [HFREF])
      • the heart can’t relax properly (heart failure with preserved ejection fraction [HFPEF])
    • there is a problem with the heart valves (see below)
  • the body is asking too much of the heart
    • pregnancy
    • prolonged high level exercise
    • overactive thyroid

3. Valvular heart disease

There are four valves in the heart, designed to stop from flowing in the wrong direction between beats, as the heart has several different sections (chambers) that blood flows through. These valves can leak and let blood go the wrong way (regurgitation) or become narrowed (stenosis). These problems can cause symptoms on their own – often leading to heart failure.

4. Arrhythmia

Arrhythmias refer to electrical problems. Your heart relies on a self-generating electrical signal to keep it in a regular rhythm. If there is a problem in this system, the heart can go too slow (bradycardia) or too fast (tachycardia). An ECG is the first step to diagnosing electrical problems.

There are several other heart problems that are less common:

  • Pericardium
    • This is the lining of the heart, which can become inflamed (pericarditis) or collect fluid (pericardial effusion)
  • Congenital
    • People can be born with abnormal connections (shunts) or weak and small chambers, putting strain on the system as people grow older

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