A Common Patient Question:
What Causes Heart Disease

The Heart Attack & Stroke Prevention Center

Most of us are well aware of the prevalence of strokes and heart attacks. Maybe someone you love has faced such a health crisis. This can often lead people to question the cause of heart disease that triggers these life-altering events.

There are several causes of heart disease. In some cases it is caused by a congenital problem with the heart or by infections such as rheumatic fever that damage the heart valves. However, the most common type of heart disease is caused by atherosclerosis.

Commonly called “hardening of the arteries,” atherosclerosis occurs when there is a buildup of cholesterol and fat that create plaque. The plaque adheres to the the walls of blood vessels which causes the arteries to thicken, stiffen, and become more narrow.

When atherosclerosis has affected arteries throughout the body, the heart has to work extra hard to pump the same amount of blood through the now narrower arteries. Over time, the heart cannot sustain this heavy work load and it begins to weaken. This can lead to a condition known as heart failure.

Atherosclerosis sometimes occurs in the vessels that feed the heart itself. These vessels are called coronary arteries and the resulting condition is coronary artery disease. This situation results in reduced blood flow to the muscles of the heart. When this occurs, it can cause chest pain called angina. If the blockage of these arteries is severe, it can lead to heart attack – known as a  myocardial infarction.

See also our pages containing information for new or prospective patients, risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and The Heart Attack and Stroke Prevention Center.