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Heart disease (cardiovascular disease) is a problem with the heart – usually a narrowed or blocked blood vessel. This can lead to a heart attack, chest pain (angina) or stroke. It can also be a problem with the heart’s muscle, valves or rhythm. Symptoms may include pain in the chest, shortness of breath, or swelling in the ankles.

To reduce your risk of heart disease, doctors recommend not smoking, eating a healthy diet, and getting regular exercise. Clinical research is growing our understanding of heart disease and how to treat it. Read on to learn more.

If you are living with heart disease, we would like to hear from you.

  • Please tell us about your experience living with heart disease in our brief online survey.
  • At the end of the survey, you can sign up to be considered for an upcoming clinical trial.
  • We also invite you to join our heart health online patient community and connect with others about heart disease.

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Diagnosis

To find out your risk for heart disease, your doctor may take your blood pressure and check your cholesterol and sugar levels. Your doctor will also check your medical history and your family history of heart disease.

Tests to diagnose heart disease and assess damage to the heart may include:

  • Chest X-ray – A picture of the structure of the heart, lungs and blood vessels.
  • Blood tests – To see if there is damage to the heart, based on the presence of certain chemicals in the blood that are released, for example, after a heart attack.
  • Blood pressure – To check your blood pressure or monitor it as you do your daily activities.
  • Echocardiogram (heart ultrasound) – An ultrasound picture of the heart and how well it is working. It may be used as a stress test before and after exercise.
  • Electrocardiogram – Measures the heart’s electrical activity by attaching wire leads to the chest. The wire leads are connected to a machine that reads the electrical impulses and prints them out for the doctor to review.
  • Coronary angiography (catheterization) – A small tube (catheter) is put up through the groin (upper thigh), arm or neck and moved up inside the artery towards the heart. A special dye is released into the bloodstream and an X-ray is taken to see how well the heart is pumping blood and how narrow the arteries are. Based on what is seen, the doctor may decide to do a coronary angioplasty while the tubes are still in place. (See Treatments.)
  • Coronary computed tomography angiogram (CCTA) – A type of scan that gives a 3-dimensional (3D) view of the heart and its blood vessels.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging – Used to create a very detailed image of the structure of the heart with a computer. It is based on radio waves. Sometimes a dye is injected to help provide more contrast in the picture.
  • Exercise stress test – Used to see if there is a change in how the heart works during or after exercise.

Causes

The main cause of heart disease is atherosclerosis, a buildup of fatty plaque in the blood vessel walls. This can cause narrowing of the blood vessels of the heart and lead to a heart attack.

High blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol (hyperlipidemia), and smoking are key risk factors for heart disease. About half of Americans (49%) have at least one of these three risk factors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other medical conditions and lifestyle choices put people at a higher risk for heart disease, such as:

  • Diabetes
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Diet (eating foods that are high in salt, sugar, fat and cholesterol)
  • Physical inactivity
  • Excessive alcohol use

Men are generally at higher risk of heart disease, but women’s risk increases after menopause. The risk increases with age.

Having a family history of heart disease increases a person’s risk of coronary artery disease, especially if a parent developed it at an early age (before age 55 for a male relative, such as your brother or father, and 65 for a female relative, such as your mother or sister).


Symptoms & Complications

Symptoms of heart disease can include:

  • Chest pain, chest tightness, chest pressure and chest discomfort (angina)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain, numbness, weakness or coldness in the legs or arms if the blood vessels in those parts of the body are narrowed
  • Pain in the neck, jaw, throat, upper abdomen or back

For some people, symptoms may be silent until a complication occurs. Possible complications of heart disease include:

  • Heart attack – When the flow of oxygen-rich blood is blocked from reaching a section of the heart muscle. This can happen when an area of fatty plaque in the coronary artery breaks open. Chest pain and discomfort are the most common signs of a heart attack, but other signs may be feelings of indigestion, heartburn, back or neck pain, nausea, extreme fatigue, or problems breathing. Some people may break out in a cold sweat and feel pain down their left arm. Others may feel discomfort in the upper arms, jaw, or upper stomach.
  • Heart failure – A condition where the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. This causes shortness of breath and fatigue that increases with physical strain.
  • Arrhythmia – A problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat, which can cause the heart to beat too fast, too slow, or with an irregular rhythm. This can feel like a fluttering or thumping feeling in the chest, known as palpitations. Some arrhythmias can cause the heart to suddenly stop beating. This is called sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) and requires immediate medical attention.

Treatment

For many people, heart disease can be prevented or treated with healthy lifestyle choices, medicine or both. For others, surgery may be needed.

Lifestyle changes may include:

  • Eating a heart healthy diet that is low in fat, sugar and salt
  • Lowering stress
  • Getting physical activity
  • Quitting smoking
  • Limiting alcohol
  • Keeping a healthy weight

Medicines used to manage heart disease may include:

  • Statins to lower or manage cholesterol levels
  • Blood pressure medicines
  • Blood thinners to prevent blood clots, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke

Medical procedures and surgery may include:

  • Angioplasty, or Percutaneous Coronary Intervention (PCI) - A procedure that opens blocked or narrowed coronary arteries with the use of a thin, flexible tube with a balloon or other device on the end. The tube is threaded through a blood vessel to the narrowed or blocked coronary artery. Once in place, the balloon is inflated to push the plaque against the wall of the artery to restore blood flow through the artery. The doctor may also put a small mesh tube called a stent in the artery to help prevent blockages.
  • Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting (CABG) - A type of surgery in which arteries or veins from other areas of the body are used to go around (bypass) the narrowed coronary arteries. This can improve blood flow to the heart, relieve chest pain, and possibly prevent a heart attack.
  • Cardiac Rehabilitation – A team of healthcare specialists work to help improve the health and well-being of someone who has heart problems. The team may include: doctors, nurses, exercise specialists, physical and occupational therapists, nutritionists and psychologists or other mental health specialists. Cardiac rehabilitation has two parts: Exercise training and Education, training and counseling.

Clinical Trials -Learn More

Clinical trials are advancing our understanding of heart disease and investigating potential treatments for people with heart disease. They depend on people like you to volunteer to take part.

Potential benefits of participating in a clinical trial include:

  • Close care and monitoring by a study doctor and staff throughout the study
  • No cost for study treatment, related tests and procedures
  • Contribute to our understanding of treatment of heart disease

Have you considered taking part in a clinical trial for people with heart disease?

If you would like to be considered for an upcoming clinical trial in heart disease, take our survey.

If you are living with heart disease, we would like to hear from you. Please take some time to answer a few questions and be considered for an upcoming clinical trial for people with heart disease. We also invite you to join our Heart Health patient community.

Take Survey

Thank you for sharing with us.

If you would like to be notified about an upcoming clinical trial, you may sign up at the end of our survey.