Overview of Heart Disease

The term "heart disease" can be used to describe any disorder of the cardiovascular system (i.e., the heart and blood vessels) that affects the heart's ability to function normally. Heart disease is also called cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease (CHD), and coronary artery disease.

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Heart disease is a major cause for heart attack (myocardial infarction), congestive heart failure, angina pectoris, stroke, sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), and ischemia (reduced blood flow).

The most common type of heart disease is atherosclerosis, which results from progressive narrowing of the blood vessels that supply oxygen and blood to the heart (coronary arteries). It develops when deposits (plaques) build up on the inner lining (endothelium) of the artery walls.

The heart is the muscular organ in the chest that maintains the circulation of blood throughout the body. Blood that has traveled through the body returns to the heart and is pumped into the lungs, where it absorbs oxygen. Oxygen-rich blood returns from the lungs, enters the heart, and then is pumped through the aortic valve into the main artery of the body (aorta) and smaller arteries that travel to the head, arms, abdomen, and legs. These arteries supply oxygen-rich blood to the organs and tissues of the body, which require oxygen to function. The coronary arteries supply oxygen-rich blood to the tissues of the heart.

Incidence and Prevalence of Heart Disease

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women in the United States, and is a major cause of death throughout the world. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 61 million people in the United States have heart disease, and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 29 percent of all deaths worldwide are related to the condition. The American Heart Association reports that approximately 870,000 people died from heart disease in 2004 in the United States.

According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease accounts for more deaths in women per year in the United States than the next six causes of death combined. In February 2007, new guidelines for preventing heart disease in women were established.

These guidelines, which are based on individual cardiovascular health, emphasize lifestyle modifications, such as smoking cessation, physical activity, a heart-healthy diet, and weight control, for all women.

According to results of a study conducted in Spain and published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2013, a diet consisting of vegetables, fruit, nuts, olive oil and smaller amounts of fish, lean meat and wine (called the Mediterranean diet) may reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke by 30 percent.

For more information about women and heart disease, please go to the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women campaign.

Publication Review By: Karen Larson, M.D., Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 10 Feb 2006

Last Modified: 10 Jul 2013