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Heart Disease

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What Is Heart Disease?

Heart disease, or coronary artery disease, is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States.

Many problems with the heart happen because of atherosclerosis, or the buildup of plaque in arteries. Plaque buildup causes your arteries to narrow, which makes it harder for your blood to flow freely through your body.

Types of heart disease

  • Heart attack: When a blood clot cuts off blood flow to part of your heart.
  • Stroke: When a blood vessel to your brain gets blocked, often by a blood clot.
  • Heart failure: When your heart isn't pumping blood as effectively as it used to. Your body doesn't get as much blood and oxygen as it needs.
  • Arrhythmia: When you have an abnormal heart rhythm. It may beat irregularly, too fast, or too slow.
  • Heart valve problems: When a heart valve doesn't open or close properly, affecting how the heart pumps blood through your body.

Heart disease causes and risk factors

Causes of heart disease may include:

  • A buildup of plaque over time.
  • Damage to your heart over time from poorly managed chronic conditions or lifestyle factors.
  • A heart-valve birth defect.

Most factors that increase your risk of heart disease relate to lifestyle, such as:

  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of heart disease
  • Obesity
  • Age

Nearly half of Americans have at least one heart disease risk factor.

Why choose UPMC for heart disease care?

Surgeons at the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute have pioneered minimally invasive surgical techniques to treat heart disease. We work as a team to provide complete heart disease treatment — from prevention to diagnosis.

Heart Disease Symptoms and Diagnosis

Because heart disease can manifest in different ways, it can be hard to notice symptoms and get a diagnosis.

Heart disease symptoms

Not everyone has symptoms of heart disease, and sometimes symptoms can be subtle based on what type of heart disease you have.

Common signs and symptoms include:

If you have arrhythmia, you may feel like your heart is fluttering, beating too fast, or skipping a beat.

Diagnosing heart disease

Your doctor will do a physical exam and order tests to diagnose heart disease. He or she will ask about your symptoms, family history, and assess any risk factors.

The UPMC Advanced Cardiac Imaging Program uses state-of-the-art technology not found at other medical centers in the Pittsburgh region.

Tests you may need to help your doctor confirm a heart disease diagnosis include:

  • Electrocardiogram (EKG) — this is a simple, painless test that checks your heart's electrical activity. It looks for heart damage or signs of a prior heart attack.
  • Stress test — during this test, you perform moderate exercise, like walking on a treadmill, to get your heart beating faster. The test checks for shortness of breath andabnormal changes in your heart rate, blood pressure, or heart's rhythm.
  • Blood tests — this test finds heart disease risk factors, such as the cholesterol, sugar, and proteins in your blood.
  • Echocardiogram — this test uses sound waves to take pictures of your heart. It checks blood flow and the size and shape of your heart's valves and chambers.
  • Heart catheterization — this test uses a dye and an x-ray to check how blood flows through your heart and blood vessels. Your doctor will insert the dye into a vein in your arm, groin, or neck using a catheter, or a thin tube.

UPMC's Cardiac Catheterization Program specialists perform more than 23,000 diagnostic and interventional heart catheterizations each year.

Heart disease prevention

Most cases of heart disease, specifically coronary artery disease, are preventable with a healthy lifestyle and medicine.

Some ways to help prevent or delay heart disease include:

  • Managing chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.
  • Following a healthy diet.
  • Exercising regularly.
  • Quitting smoking and not abusing alcohol.

Heart Disease Treatment

Treatment depends on the type of heart disease and how severe.

The goals of heart disease treatment are to:

  • Prevent further heart damage.
  • Slow or stop the buildup of plaque.
  • Lower the risk of blood clots to prevent heart attack and stroke.
  • Relieve symptoms.
  • Widen or bypass arteries.
  • Correct valve problems.

A treatment plan may include lifestyle changes, heart disease drugs, and surgery.

Lifestyle changes for treating heart disease

To prevent or reverse damage to the heart and lessen symptoms, you should adopt some heart-healthy lifestyle habits.

Some lifestyle changes you can make are to:

  • Quit smoking.
  • Avoid excessive drinking.
  • Follow a heart-healthy diet.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Maintain an ideal weight.
  • Manage stress.

Heart disease medications

Your doctor may prescribe drugs to lower your risk of serious complications and to manage symptoms.

Heart disease medications help:

  • Lower cholesterol.
  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Prevent blood clots.
  • Decrease the chances of having a heart attack.
  • Lessen your heart's workload.

Surgery and procedures to treat heart disease

You may need surgery to open blocked arteries or to repair or replace a valve.

Methods we use to treat heart disease include:

  • Angioplasty — surgeons thread a catheter through a blood vessel and into a blocked artery. They inflate a balloon at the end of the catheter to compress plaque and allow blood to flow freely through the artery.
  • Coronary bypass surgery — surgeons use blood vessels from other parts of your body to restore blood flow to your heart.
  • Heart valve repair or replacement surgery.
  • Heart surgery — surgeons often use this treatment method to repair a birth defect.

Severe cases of heart failure or birth defects may require a heart transplant.

UPMC's Cardiac Catheterization Program specialists perform more than 23,000 angioplasty procedures and heart catheterizations each year.