Cardiovascular Disease Types

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: January 2024

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in the United States and around the globe. It is also called heart disease. The term “heart disease” can refer to several conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels. Understanding the various types of CVD is a crucial step toward understanding your risk level and maintaining a healthy heart.1

Common types of cardiovascular disease

There are many different types of CVD. The most common ones are:1-14

Atrial fibrillation (AFib)

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is the most common type of arrhythmia. Arrhythmias are abnormal and irregular heartbeats. The heart may beat too fast, too slow, or both at different times. In most people with AFib, the heart often beats faster than normal. They also have an irregular rhythm that makes it harder for their heart to effectively pump blood throughout their body.3

AFib becomes more common with age. Factors like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and excessive alcohol use can also increase a person’s risk of developing AFib. However, AFib can affect people of any age, and it can occur for no clear reason.3,4

AFib symptoms can vary. Some people with AFib notice no symptoms, which can make it harder to diagnose. The most common symptoms of AFib include:3

  • Heart palpitations
  • Rapid and irregular heartbeat
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath

Treating AFib typically involves taking medicines to stabilize the heart rate and prevent blood clots that can cause a stroke. Adopting a healthy lifestyle that includes limiting alcohol and treating underlying conditions such as sleep apnea is also highly recommended. If medicine and lifestyle changes are not enough, doctors may recommend a procedure like a catheter ablation or an electrical cardioversion.5

Cardiomyopathy

Cardiomyopathy is a disease in which the heart muscle can become weakened, enlarged, or stiff. This makes it hard for the heart to pump blood efficiently.6

Cardiomyopathy can affect people of all ages. It may be passed down from family members. It can also result from other health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or infections.6

Symptoms of cardiomyopathy may include:6

  • Fatigue
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling in the legs, ankles, or feet
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Dizziness or fainting

Treatment depends on the cause of the weakened heart muscle and can include medicine to improve how the heart functions, lifestyle changes, and nonsurgical therapies such as ablation. In severe cases, surgery or a heart device like a pacemaker or defibrillator may be needed.7

Coronary artery disease (CAD)

CAD makes up about one-third to one-half of all heart disease cases. CAD occurs when the blood vessels that provide the heart muscle with blood and oxygen become narrow or blocked. The result may be chest pain, heart attack, or sudden cardiac death.2,8

CAD develops because of a buildup of cholesterol and other substances in the arteries. CAD often affects older adults, but it also can occur in younger people who smoke or have untreated high blood pressure, diabetes, or a family history of the disease.2,8

Common symptoms of CAD include:2,8

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • In severe cases, heart attack or death

Healthy lifestyle changes and medicines to control blood pressure and cholesterol are the first steps toward managing and treating CAD. For some, surgeries like angioplasty, stent, or open heart bypass surgery may be recommended.8

Heart failure

Contrary to its name, heart failure does not mean that the heart stops working. Rather, it is when the heart cannot pump blood effectively to the rest of the body. This leads to a lack of oxygen and nutrients reaching the body's organs and tissues.1,9

Heart failure tends to occur more often in older adults, but it can affect people of all ages. It is more common in those with a history of heart problems like CAD or other conditions such as high blood pressure, obesity, or type 2 diabetes.10

Symptoms of heart failure may include:9

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Persistent coughing
  • Wheezing

Heart failure cannot be cured, but it can be managed well with treatment options such as:11

  • Lifestyle changes like a healthy diet and exercise
  • Medicines to lower blood pressure and strengthen the heart muscle
  • Surgical procedures
  • Heart transplant

High cholesterol (hyperlipidemia)

High cholesterol – also called hyperlipidemia – means there are elevated levels of cholesterol in the blood. Cholesterol is a fatty substance that the body needs to function. But having too much cholesterol can be a problem.12

There are 2 main types of cholesterol:12

  • LDL – considered the “bad” kind of cholesterol
  • HDL – considered the “good” kind of cholesterol

If you have too much LDL cholesterol, you may develop CVD.12

High cholesterol itself does not lead to noticeable symptoms. It is often detected through blood tests. But if high cholesterol goes unchecked and untreated, it can lead to heart problems like thickening or hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). This can cause chest pain and shortness of breath.12

High cholesterol can affect people of all ages. The most common risk factors for high cholesterol include:12

  • Genetics, or family history
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • Having an unhealthy body weight

Eating a healthy diet, getting more physical activity, losing weight, and taking medicine to lower cholesterol are some ways to treat high cholesterol. Getting your cholesterol levels under control also helps reduce your risk of developing other heart diseases.12

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) / deep vein thrombosis (DVT)

PAD and DVT occur when blood vessels outside the heart, usually in the legs, become narrow or blocked by a clot. This leads to reduced blood flow to the limbs.13,14

PAD and DVT are more common in adults over the age of 60 and those with one or more of the following risk factors:13,14

  • A history of smoking
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Excess weight or obesity

DVT can occur after long periods of not moving. For example, it may happen after a stay in the hospital or a long car ride. Some people who are pregnant develop DVT as well.14

Common symptoms of PAD and DVT include leg pain, numbness, and weakness, especially when walking or exercising. But both conditions may have no noticeable symptoms.13,14

Treatment for PAD and DVT depends on age, health history, and the location and severity of the clot. Doctors may prescribe blood thinners to prevent future complications. Lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking and regular exercise are usually recommended as well. In severe cases, a procedure such as angioplasty or bypass surgery may be needed.13,14

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Treatment results and side effects can vary from person to person. This treatment information is not meant to replace professional medical advice. Talk to your doctor about what to expect before starting and while taking any treatment.