Causes and Symptoms of Heart Disease

Article | October 2019

Causes and Symptoms of Heart Disease

Read about the causes of heart disease, symptoms, and how to lower your risk.

In the U.S., the most common form of heart disease is coronary artery disease (CAD). This can cause serious events like chest pain, irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), heart attack, and heart failure. If you are age 65 or older, you are at more risk of CAD than a younger person.

What are the main causes of heart disease?

Over time, plaque can build up inside the walls of the arteries. This is called hardening of the arteries, or arteriosclerosis, which causes high blood pressure.

Other heart disease causes include:

  • Heart attacks
  • Hypertension
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic alcohol use
  • Thyroid disease
  • Chemotherapy
  • Family history
  • Advanced age

What are the main symptoms of heart disease?

Heart disease is a major threat to senior health. It may be present without symptoms. That’s why regular checkups are important. Seek help immediately if you have any of the following heart disease symptoms:

  • Pain, numbness, or tingling in the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back
  • Shortness of breath when active, at rest, or while lying down
  • Chest pain that gets better with rest
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, stomach, or neck

What are some tests to diagnose heart disease?

Your primary care provider (PCP) may talk with you about your risk for heart disease and conduct tests to check your heart and blood flow. Things your PCP will be looking at for heart disease include:

  • Blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Age and gender
  • Family history

Your doctor might also want to order more tests to check your heart and arteries, such as a fasting blood test and X-rays.

How is heart disease treated?

Although the risk of heart disease increases with age, there are things you can do to lower or reverse your risk of heart disease. As part of treatment for heart disease, you may to need to make changes to your lifestyle and dietary habits.

Lifestyle changes you can make include:

  • Not smoking
  • Being physically active
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Getting regular checkups
  • Reducing alcohol intake
  • Minimizing stress

A heart-healthy diet includes the following:

  • Eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other high-fiber foods
  • Foods that are low in saturated fat and trans fat
  • Limiting salt (sodium) intake
  • Eating at least 2 servings of fish each week (oily fish, which contain omega-3 fatty acids, are best)
  • Limiting sugary drinks and foods
  • Drinking water to reduce stress on the heart, kidneys, and other organs

Work with your PCP to keep health problems under control. It’s never too late to start living a healthy lifestyle and getting your heart disease risks in check.

More Information

Find out more about heart disease and aging by visiting the National Institute on Aging website.