Overview of heart disease

Am I at risk of heart disease?
You can get an idea of your risk of developing heart disease from the risk factors you have. Some risk factors for heart disease are things you can't change (e.g., your age, a family history of heart disease), but other risk factors are things you can do something about (e.g., smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, poor nutrition, lack of exercise).

To find out your at risk for developing heart disease, talk to your doctor or try our tool "Are you at risk for heart disease?" For more information about risk factors, read "Heart disease risk factors."

What can I do to reduce my risk of heart disease?
There's a lot you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease. Lifestyle changes such as becoming more physically active, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking, and reducing stress can all go a long way in preventing or reducing the risk of heart disease. For more information on preventing heart disease, read "Preventing heart disease."

What are the signs and symptoms of a heart attack?
If you are having a heart attack, the sooner you get treatment the better. That's why it's important to recognize the signs of a heart attack, which include:

  • chest pain or discomfort (burning, fullness, pressure or tightness)
  • discomfort in the neck, jaw, shoulder, or back
  • shortness of breath
  • nausea
  • sweating
  • cool and clammy skin
  • fear or anxiety

If you experience these symptoms, get emergency medical attention. For more information on heart attack symptoms, see our article "Heart attack: know the symptoms."

Someone in my family died of a heart attack. Will the same thing happen to me?
Not necessarily, but it does increase your risk of heart disease. Your family history is one risk factor you can't change, but if you live a healthy lifestyle by eating well, exercising regularly, and not smoking, it will help control the risk factors you can change and will help reduce your risk of heart disease and a heart attack. If you have a family history of heart disease or a heart attack, talk to your doctor about other risk factors you may have and how best to reduce your risk.

Will taking ASA prevent a heart attack?
There is very good evidence that taking acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) reduces the risk of having a second heart attack. However, there is some controversy around whether taking ASA helps prevent a first heart attack. The controversy lies around the fact the ASA has side effects and can increase the risk of bleeding, especially from the stomach or intestines. Talk to your doctor about whether taking ASA to prevent at heart attack is right for you. Your doctor is in the best position to weigh the benefits and risks of taking ASA. It's best not to take ASA to prevent a heart attack unless it has been recommended by your doctor.

Is it okay to exercise if you have heart disease?
Before starting any exercise program, you should talk to your doctor to make sure you exercise safely. However, most people with heart disease can and should exercise. Regular exercise can help make your heart stronger, reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and help you lose weight. Your doctor may suggest aerobic exercise such as walking or resistance exercises such as weight training. Your doctor may also recommend that you work with a physiotherapist or exercise specialist to develop a safe and effective exercise program. Keep in mind that exercising should be something you enjoy doing!

What is heart failure?
Heart failure is a type of heart disease where your heart does not pump blood efficiently to the rest of your body. Your heart may not be able to fill up with enough blood or your heart may not be able pump with enough force to get blood to the rest of your body. Heart failure is primarily managed with medications that help the heart work more efficiently. It's also important that you do what you can to control your risk factors for heart disease.

What is coronary artery disease or CAD?
Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common type of heart disease. With coronary artery disease, the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart muscle narrow due to the build-up of plaque. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol and other substances. Over time, the blood vessels narrow and harden and the heart may not get enough oxygen. This can cause angina (chest pain). If the plaque ruptures or tears, a blood clot can form to repair it, and this can completely block the blood vessel and cause a heart attack.

What is an arrhythmia?
An arrhythmia is an abnormal heart rhythm that is caused by abnormal electrical activity within the heart that causes the heart to beat too quickly, too slowly, or irregularly. Some arrhythmias are benign (not harmful), but other types are serious and require treatment with medication or a pacemaker.

What is heart bypass surgery?
Heart bypass surgery, also know as coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery, involves taking a healthy section of blood vessel from another part of your body (usually the leg) and using this healthy section of blood vessel to go around or bypass a blocked part of a blood vessel that supplies the heart muscle with oxygen-rich blood. This type of surgery is performed for some people who have coronary artery disease.

Is it safe to have sex after a heart attack?
The short answer is yes, after a certain time. If you've had a heart attack, you might have to wait 2 or 3 weeks before resuming sexual activity. It's normal to feel nervous or anxious about this after a heart attack, but it might help for you to know that a heart attack is rarely brought on by sexual activity. Sexual activity does not make as much of a demand on your heart as most people think. Talk to your doctor about what is recommended for you and about any of your concerns.