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Photo of a physician and patient

Heart disease can take many forms. A person can be born with heart disease, or it can develop after birth. Heart ailments can be caused by problems with the blood vessels that feed the heart. Heart ailments can also be electrical or structural.

The most common cause of heart disease is known as hardening of the arteries. When your arteries harden, plaque, which is made up of cholesterol and calcium, builds up in the artery walls. This narrows your arteries and limits the amount of blood getting to your heart and other organs. Eventually, this results in a condition called coronary artery disease or coronary heart disease, which can lead to chest pain (called angina), heart attack, or heart failure. This artery-hardening process can happen in other areas of your body, too, such as your brain, which can lead to stroke, or your legs, which is known as peripheral artery disease, or PAD.

Electrical problems have to do with heart rhythm and are called arrhythmias. Heart rhythm problems can cause your heart to beat too quickly, too slowly, or irregularly. Common heart rhythm problems are atrial flutter, atrial fibrillation, and ventricular fibrillation. These heart problems are often treated by an electrophysiologist​. Treatment depends on what kind of rhythm problem you have and whether it is mild or severe. Treatments include medication, pacemakers, and ICDs (implantable cardiac defibrillators).

When parts of your heart are formed incorrectly, they are called structural problems. Structural problems can include problems with valves, problems with the connections between blood vessels and your heart, and problems with the walls that separate your heart chambers. When valves are too narrow, it can limit the amount of blood that moves through your heart. Some valves don't close properly. This allows blood to leak back into the chamber it was just in. Examples of valve disease include mitral valve prolapse (MVP), aortic regurgitation, and mitral regurgitation. An enlarged heart (cardiomyopathy​) is another example of a structural problem. Treatments for structural problems can include heart surgery or valve surgery.

Coronary Heart Disease (CHD)

CHD is a disease in which plaque builds up on the inner walls of your coronary arteries. These arteries carry oxygen-rich blood to your heart. When plaque builds up in the arteries, the condition is called atherosclerosis.

Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances found in the blood. Over time, plaque can harden or rupture (break down).

Hardened plaque narrows the coronary arteries and reduces the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart. This can cause chest pain or discomfort called angina.

If the plaque ruptures, a blood clot can form on its surface. A large blood clot can mostly or completely block blood flow through a coronary artery. This is the most common cause of a heart attack. Over time, ruptured plaque also hardens and narrows the coronary arteries.

Heart with Muscle Damage and a Blocked Artery

​​​Illustration of the heart muscle

Figure A is an overview of a heart and coronary artery showing damage (dead heart muscle) caused by a heart attack. Figure B is a cross-section of the coronary artery with plaque buildup and a blood clot resulting from plaque rupture.

Plaque also can develop within the walls of the coronary arteries. Tests that show the insides of the coronary arteries may look normal in people who have this pattern of plaque. Studies are underway to see whether this type of plaque buildup occurs more often in women than in men and why.

In addition to angina and heart attack, CHD can cause other serious heart problems. The disease may lead to heart failure, irregular heartbeats called arrhythmias, and sudden cardiac arrest (SCA).

Who Does it Affect?

In the United States, one in four women will die from heart disease. In fact, coronary heart disease - the most common type of heart disease - is the #1 killer of both men and women in the United States.

Certain traits, conditions, or habits may raise your risk for coronary heart disease. These conditions are known as risk factors. Risk factors also increase the chance that existing CHD will worsen.

Women generally have the same CHD risk factors as men. However, some risk factors may affect women differently than men. For example, diabetes raises the risk of CHD more in women. Also, some risk factors, such as birth control pills and menopause, only affect women.

There are many known CHD risk factors. Your risk for CHD and heart attack rises with the number of risk factors you have and their severity. Risk factors tend to "gang up" and worsen each other's effects.

Having just one risk factor doubles your risk for CHD. Having two risk factors increases your risk for CHD fourfold. Having three or more risk factors increases your risk for CHD more than tenfold.

Also, some risk factors, such as smoking and diabetes, put you at greater risk for CHD and heart attack than others.

More than 75 percent of women aged 40 to 60 have one or more risk factors for CHD. Many risk factors start during childhood; some even develop within the first ten years of life. You can control most risk factors, but some you can't.

Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Why The Heart Hospital Baylor​?

The Heart Hospital Baylor Plano is a cardiovascular specialty hospital in Plano, Texas. Our mission is to provide safe, quality, compassionate care and five-star service to our guests. We offer comprehensive, noninvasive, diagnostic cardiac and vascular services.

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