Heart Disease 101 for new patients

paint heart

by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters

Confused about heart disease terminology?  Visit my patient-friendly, no-jargon glossary of hundreds of confusing phrases, abbreviations and acronyms in cardiology.  Meanwhile, here are some basic definitions you need to know about women’s heart disease:

Heart disease (or cardiac disease) is any kind of disease that affects the heart, like:

  • heart failure
  • angina (any pain between neck and navel that typically comes on with exertion and goes away with rest)
  • arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythms)
  • valvular heart disease
  • coronary artery disease (CAD) 

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is not the same as heart disease.  Cardio refers to the heart and vascular refers to blood vessels.  CVD affects the heart and/or blood vessels:

  • coronary artery disease
  • peripheral artery disease
  • stroke
  • high blood pressure (hypertension)

Sudden cardiac death is not a heart attack, but an electrical misfiring – an unexpected, sudden death usually within one hour of the onset of symptoms, caused by sudden cardiac arrest (loss of heart function). Causes include:

  • abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmia)
  • a previous heart attack
  • coronary artery disease
  • congenital heart defects

Coronary artery disease, coronary heart disease and coronary atherosclerosis are the same thing, occurring when plaque builds up on the inside of coronary arteries.  In some cases (particularly in women), coronary arteries can be affected by non-obstructive disease like spasm or small vessel disease.  These conditions can lead to:

  • heart attack (acute myocardial infarction)
  • stroke
  • angina 

Heart failure (which, by the way, is a terrifyingly dreadful name for all who hear this diagnosis tripping lightly from the lips of a cardiologist) occurs when the heart doesn’t pump blood as efficiently and effectively as it should, caused by:

  • untreated high blood pressure 
  • coronary artery disease
  • valvular heart disease
  • infections

Similar risk factors may be responsible for developing all types of heart disease.


NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   I wrote more about these and many other important topics about women’s heart health in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease  (Johns Hopkins University, November 2017).

See also:

5 thoughts on “Heart Disease 101 for new patients

  1. dear heart sisters,
    I am in year 10 at school and i am doing ICT DIDA as a subject. I was wondering if i was able to use your ‘Heart Disease 101’ picture for my project.
    Thank you very much


  2. Thank you for defining these heart related terms! You’ve made them so much easier to understand.

    Nice site


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