What is Heart Disease?

The number-one cause of death in the U.S. is heart disease -- don't miss this advice for prevention.

Once you reach a certain age, a short list of what ails you may seem very long indeed. We've winnowed down that potentially lengthy list to a handful of key health concerns that have enormous impact on older people. Some of these troubles may respond well to changes in lifestyle, medications, and the strategies outlined below. Your doctor can offer advice tailored to your needs.

The top slot in the U.S. mortality sweepstakes has gone to heart disease every year since 1921. This year alone more than a million Americans can expect to have a heart attack or another complication of heart disease. And more than 40 percent of those who do have a heart attack will die from it. Yet heart disease can often be prevented.

The loose term "heart disease" usually describes coronary artery disease (CAD). If you develop CAD, the two arteries that feed oxygen-rich blood to your heart narrow enough in some places to reduce or entirely interrupt blood flow. Like all muscles, the muscle that forms your heart (the myocardium) needs a steady supply of blood and oxygen to stay healthy. Interrupted blood flow, known as ischemia, can gravely damage it. Transient ischemia causes the chest pain called angina. Longer-lasting ischemia causes a myocardial infarction, or heart attack, that kills off muscle cells.

CAD is also one of many conditions that can trigger abnormal heart rhythms (or arrhythmias) that cause palpitations, fainting, and, sometimes, sudden death. CAD is linked to congestive heart failure (CHF), too, which occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood. Shortness of breath, tiredness, and fluid accumulation in the body are signs of CHF.