Heart disease is the name for several conditions which affect your heart and blood vessels. They can stop blood flowing around your body as it should, which can cause serious illness and sometimes death. Maintaining a healthy diet, regular exercise, and stopping smoking can help lower your heart disease risk.

What’s heart disease?

Heart disease is a condition which affects your heart and blood vessels, like:

  • arrhythmia — when your heart isn’t beating as it should 
  • cardiomyopathy — when your heart muscle is damaged 
  • congenital heart disease — a birth defect that affects your heart 
  • heart valve disease — when the valves in your heart aren’t working properly
  • heart failure — when your heart isn’t functioning as well as it should
  • heart infections — when your heart is infected by bacteria, viruses, or parasites
  • coronary heart disease (CHD) — when fatty substances build up in your heart’s arteries

Heart disease is one of the biggest causes of death in the UK. CHD is the most common type of heart disease.

What are the symptoms of heart disease?

Heart disease symptoms depend on what type of heart problem you have. They might include:

  • chest pain
  • feeling dizzy or faint
  • breathlessness
  • feeling tired (fatigue) 
  • pain or weakness in your limbs 
  • heart palpitations, or a fast or slow heartbeat 

What causes heart disease?

Lots of different things cause heart disease. This depends on what type of heart problem you have.

Some types develop when fatty substances (atheroma) build up in the tubes which carry blood around your body (arteries). Infections, health conditions, medicines, and lifestyle factors can cause them too.

What’s a heart attack?

A heart attack happens when blood isn’t able to reach your heart because of a blockage. Heart attack symptoms vary from person to person, but often include:

  • chest pain — like a squeezing sensation or pressure on your chest
  • chest pain that travels to your left or right arm, neck, jaw, back, or stomach
  • feeling sick (nausea), sweaty, light-headed, or short of breath

Men and women often experience chest pain when having a heart attack. But women are less likely to than men. They are also more likely than men to feel sick, have back or jaw pain, and feel short of breath. So it’s important to look out for these signs as well as chest pain.

Less often, women and men’s symptoms might include:

  • coughing a lot
  • sudden overwhelming anxiety — like something really bad’s about to happen

If you think you’re having a heart attack, it’s best to call 999 so you can get help quickly.

Hands held into heart shape in front of sunrise

Do women get heart disease?

It’s a common misconception that heart problems are a ‘male’ issue.

This isn’t true — in the UK, CHD is the second most-common cause of death among women after dementia. 

Women might be less likely to seek medical attention quickly. So it’s important to seek treatment as soon as you recognise the warning signs.

Some people with symptoms don’t realise they’re having a heart attack, and delay seeking medical help. Call 999 if you think you’re having a heart attack.

Can heart disease be treated?

There are lots of ways to slow down and treat heart disease, depending on the condition. A doctor might recommend anything from eating a healthy diet to surgery (in serious cases).

It’s never too late to start living a healthy lifestyle. This can prevent you from developing heart problems in future. It can also stop existing problems getting worse.

If you have a heart problem, it’s a good idea to speak to your GP or consultant before you start a new exercise routine.

Can you prevent heart disease? 

Preventing heart disease depends on the type of heart problem you have. 

CHD is the most common type of heart disease. It also causes other heart problems, like heart failure and heart valve disease. There are things you can do at home to prevent CHD or stop it getting worse, like:

Find out how to test your blood cholesterol levels. 

Thriva podcast | S4 E1: Salt and blood pressure
Thriva podcast | S4 E2: Heart rate variability (HRV)


British Heart Foundation: Cardiovascular heart disease. Retrieved 8 March 2022 from: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/conditions/cardiovascular-heart-disease 

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