When most of us think of heart disease, we think of a heart attack. All too often, a close friend or relative has suffered from one. Or maybe we’ve been told by our doctor that we’re putting ourselves at risk for a heart attack. In any case, somewhere along the line it’s likely that we’ve heard healthcare professionals use the terms “cardiovascular disease” and “heart failure” and “cardiac arrest,” and perhaps “arrhythmia” and “stroke” were thrown in there as well.
But they’re not all talking about the same thing. Keeping an eye on your cardiovascular health means looking closer at the different terms, and what they might mean to you, personally.
Cardiovascular refers to the heart and blood vessels–the heart muscle and vascular system that keeps the blood flowing throughout our bodies.
Cardiovascular diseases include heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and stroke.
Coronary artery disease (CAD) happens when plaque (made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances) builds up inside the arteries that supply oxygen-rich blood to your heart muscle. (This is sometimes called hardening of the arteries.) CAD is the most common type of heart disease.
Coronary heart disease is often used instead of CAD, meaning that the heart’s circulation system is not pumping enough blood to the heart muscle and surrounding tissue.
Heart arrhythmia means an abnormal rhythm of the heart. The heart might beat too slowly, too fast or irregularly. Cardiac arrhythmias are a type of heart disease, as are heart valve problems.
Heart attacks happen when a coronary artery becomes blocked and enough blood and oxygen can’t get through. The heart muscle then becomes damaged. The location and severity of the blockage can result in a mild or severe heart attack.
Heart disease is often used to mean the same thing as cardiovascular disease, and can refer to CAD as well as other problems like infections and heart defects you’re born with.
Heart failure happens when the heart is too weak to pump enough blood and oxygen to the rest of the body. The heart is still working, just not well enough. Heart failure may be the result of damage from a heart attack, but there are other causes, as well.
Stroke refers to what happens when the blood flow to the brain is stopped or reduced. It’s most commonly caused by a blood clot. As opposed to heart attacks, some people call strokes “brain attacks.”
Sudden cardiac arrest is when the electrical signals in the heart suddenly stop it from beating. The heart can’t pump blood to the brain or the rest of the body. Sudden cardiac arrest is a medical emergency. Without immediate treatment, it usually leads to sudden cardiac death.
It’s probably the terrifying images of cardiac arrest–hopefully accompanied by pictures of CPR being administered, or the use of a defibrillator–that come to mind when we hear the words “heart attack.”
But the fact is that sudden cardiac arrest is very different from a heart attack. However, it can be caused by a heart attack. It can also be the result of other heart problems.
Like most things in life, keeping your heart healthy means looking at the big picture. Getting the information you need before having a conversation with your healthcare provider is a good way to start.