What is heart disease and how can early diagnosis help me?

By: Dr. Fiorella Llanos, Cardiologist at DHR Health Heart Institute 

The term “heart disease” refers to multiple types of heart conditions. Most commonly referring to coronary artery disease, which is the buildup of cholesterol, calcium, and fat in the heart arteries. However, every part of the heart can be affected, therefore each condition is treated differently. 

When discussing heart disease with my patients, I like to use the following analogy: “the heart is just like a house”.  Just like a house has rooms, the heart has chambers.  Sometimes these chambers can become enlarged and/or weak, which can cause congestive heart failure. Rooms communicate with one another through doors that open and close when people enter or leave a room. These “doors” in the heart are called valves, which allow blood to circulate within the heart.  Occasionally, these valves have a hard time opening or closing, causing a stenosis (“tightness”) or regurgitation (“leakiness”) of the valves.  The heart also has coronary arteries, which are like “pipes” in your home.  When these heart “pipes” get clogged, people develop coronary artery disease or experience a heart attack. The last component of the heart is the electrical system, just like the electrical system of a house can malfunction, so does that of the heart.  Electrical malfunction in the heart can in turn cause a wide array of diseases such as abnormally fast, slow, and/or irregular heart rhythm, which may need medication, a cardioversion (“jumpstart”) or a whole new electrical system in the form of a pacemaker. 

Each of these heart structures can become affected from various reasons, such as older age, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, obesity, family history (genetics), chemotherapy (especially those used for breast cancer), chest radiation therapy, illicit drugs such as cocaine, amongst others. A prompt diagnosis can many times help reverse the damage, halt the progression of a disease, decrease hospitalizations, and/or improve mortality. 

It is important to speak to your primary care physician about your concerns and to see a cardiologist if you are experiencing any symptoms such as:  shortness of breath, chest pain, irregular heartbeat, fainting, or swelling in the ankles, hands or feet.   If you have questions regarding your heart health or would like to speak to one of our experts, please contact the DHR Health Heart Institute at (956) 362-8400.