What Is Heart Disease?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the American Heart Association have designated February as American Heart Month.

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Coronary heart disease, more commonly called heart disease, is the leading cause of death among men and women living in the United States. One in every four deaths (or 610,000 deaths) is caused by heart disease every year. More than half of these occur among men.Although deaths from heart disease have declined in the United States, racial/ethnic and gender disparities exist, particularly among women and populations of color.

To educate and increase awareness, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the American Heart Association have designated February as American Heart Month.

What Is Heart Disease?

Coronary heart disease is a disorder of the blood vessels of the heart, which is caused by the flow of oxygen-rich blood being blocked from traveling to the heart.3 This lack of oxygen results in a heart attack. Heart disease is the number one type of cardiovascular disease.1, 3 Figure 1 (below)—adapted from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute—shows an overview of the damage caused by a heart attack.4

Figure 1. Overview of a damaged heart and cross-section of the coronary artery with plaque buildup and a blood clot during a heart attack.3

Risk Factors

People have an increased risk for heart disease if they have a family history of heart disease; consume an unhealthy diet with high calories, salt, and cholesterol; lead a sedentary lifestyle; are obese or overweight; have diabetes or hypertension; are smokers; or drink alcohol excessively. Increased stress is also a risk factor for heart disease.4, 5

Signs and Symptoms of a Heart Attack

The most common and classic symptom for a heart attack is chest discomfort in the form of pain, tightness, or pressure.6, 7 Figure 2 (below) shows the major signs and symptoms of heart attack in women and men.

Other symptoms of heart attack include:6, 7

  • Pain radiating to the arm or back. This is a classic symptom of heart attack, just like chest pain. The pain also can spread from the chest to the throat or jaw.
  • Nausea, indigestion, heartburn, or stomach burn. These symptoms are more common in women.
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness.
  • Extreme exhaustion or unexplained weakness especially in women.
  • Sweating. Breaking out in a cold sweat for no obvious reason could signal a heart attack.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia.
  • Swollen legs, ankles, or feet.
  • Continuous cough.
Figure 2. Five major signs and symptoms of a heart attack in women and men. Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.6

A person with a classic symptom or more than one symptom of heart attack—especially if he or she has a known risk factor for heart attack—should call 911 immediately to ask for help. Do not hesitate or wait to see if the symptoms will go away on their own. The sooner the patient gets to the hospital and receives treatment, the better the chances are to survive and reduce damage to the heart.

IQ Solutions employees participate in 2016 Wear Red Day to support women’s heart health.

Heart diseases, with their devastating consequences, can be prevented by following a healthy lifestyle at any age.8

  • Exercise. Physical activity can help you strengthen your heart and improve your overall fitness.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Reduce your consumption of foods rich in saturated fats and those with a very high sodium content. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich grains, nuts, and legumes.
  • Manage your chronic conditions. If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, hypertension, or high cholesterol, work with your physician to keep these conditions under control.
  • Know the early signs and symptoms of heart attack. Do not hesitate to ask for help if you suspect you are having a heart attack.

Be familiar with the top 10 myths about heart disease and related cardiovascular disease.9

  1. “I’m too young to worry about heart disease.”
  2. “I’d know if I had high blood pressure because there would be warning signs.”
  3. “I’ll know when I’m having a heart attack because I’ll have chest pain.”
  4. “Diabetes won’t threaten my heart as long as I take my medication.”
  5. “Heart disease runs in my family, so there’s nothing I can do to prevent it.”
  6. “I don’t need to have my cholesterol checked until I’m middle-aged.”
  7. “Heart failure means the heart stops beating.”
  8. “This pain in my legs must be a sign of aging. I’m sure it has nothing to do with my heart.”
  9.  “My heart is beating really fast. I must be having a heart attack.”
  10. “I should avoid exercise after having a heart attack.”


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart Disease Fact Sheet. http://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fs_heart_disease.htm
  2. Vaughan AS, Quick H, Pathak EB, Kramer MR, and Casper M. (2015). ). Disparities in temporal and geographic patterns of declining heart disease mortality by race and sex in the United States, 1973–2010. Journal of the American Heart Association, 4(12). e002567. doi: 10.1161/JAHA.115.002567.
  3. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health. Explore Heart Attack. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/heartattack
  4. WebMD. Heart Disease Health Center. http://www.webmd.com/heart-disease/guide/heart-attack-causes-treatments
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart Disease Risk Factors. http://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/risk_factors.htm
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart Attack Signs and Symptoms. http://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/signs_symptoms.htm
  7. WebMD. Never Ignore These 11 Heart Symptoms. http://www.webmd.com/heart-disease/features/12-possible-heart-symptoms-never-to-ignore
  8. American Heart Association. How to Help Prevent Heart Disease—At Any Age. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/How-to-Help-Prevent-Heart-Disease---At-Any-Age_UCM_442925_Article.jsp#.Vq-JOLIrJaQ
  9. American Heart Association. Top 10 Myths about Cardiovascular Disease. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Top-10-Myths-about-Cardiovascular-Disease_UCM_430164_Article.jsp#.Vq--CbIrKUk

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