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Heart Disease 101: Everything You Need to Know

Heart Disease 101: Everything You Need to Know

This article is for people who have heart disease or anyone who wants to learn more about heart disease. The goal of this patient education activity is to understand what causes heart disease and how it can be prevented and treated.

You will learn about:

  • What causes heart disease?

  • Who is at risk for a heart attack?

  • What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

  • How is heart disease treated?

  • Questions to ask your doctor

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What Causes Heart Disease?

A common form of heart disease is when there are blockages from cholesterol and fat build up (called plaque) in the heart arteries. Having blockages limits the amount of blood and oxygen that the heart is getting. Over time, the heart muscle becomes damaged, which can lead to a heart attack.

Also, people with heart disease are at a high risk of getting a blood clot (made of plaque, platelets, and red blood cells) in the heart, which causes a heart attack.

Who Is at Risk for a Heart Attack?

Your chances of having a heart attack are greater if you have these risk factors:

  • Age 65 years or older

  • Current smoker

  • Diabetes

  • High blood pressure (even with treatment)

  • High cholesterol (even with treatment)

  • You get little or no physical activity

  • Heart failure

  • Kidney disease

  • Peripheral artery disease (when plaque builds up in blood vessels in your legs)

  • Already had a heart attack or stroke

  • Already had heart surgery

  • Heart disease runs in your family

Dr Ruff talks about what increases the risk of having a heart attack in people with heart disease.

What Are the Symptoms of a Heart Attack?

Get medical attention immediately if you have any of these symptoms:

  • Chest pain or pressure that comes back after rest or moves from your chest to your arms, neck, jaw, or back

  • Shortness of breath

  • Stomach pain or nausea

  • Cold sweat

  • Feeling very tired

Other symptoms that can happen include: pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen (stomach), pressure in the upper back, dizziness/fainting, and feeling lightheaded.

How Can I Lower My Risk for a Heart Attack?

For people with heart disease or who have already had a heart attack, it is very important to follow a heart-healthy lifestyle along with taking medicines. There are lifesaving procedures available, as well.

Together, these methods can help treat blockages and heart disease, which helps lower the risk for a heart attack.

What Is a Heart-Healthy Lifestyle?

A heart-healthy lifestyle includes:

  • Having a heart-healthy diet: Eat more fruits, vegetables, and grains

  • Maintaining a healthy weight: Lose weight if you are overweight. Have smaller portions to control calorie intake, eat healthy snacks if you get hungry in between meals

  • Being more physically active: Get at least 20 minutes of exercise, 3 to 4 times a week

Which Medicines Might I Need to Take?

You may need to take several different medicines: for heart-related conditions and possibly 1 or more blood thinners.

  • Medicines to manage other health conditions: Keep taking medicines as directed for high blood pressure, high cholesterol (eg, a statin), and diabetes, if you have any of those conditions. This can help reduce stress on your heart

  • Medicines (blood thinners) to lower the risk of a blood clot: A blood thinner can help prevent blood clots from forming and blocking blood flow to the heart. This helps lower the chances for having a heart attack. There are 2 major types of blood thinners: antiplatelet medicines and anticoagulants

Dr Ruff talks about ways to lower the risk for a heart attack.

Blood Thinners for Heart Disease: Antiplatelet Medicines

Antiplatelet medicines have been used for a long time to treat people with heart disease. These medicines stop blood clots from forming, helping to prevent a heart attack.

After having a first heart attack, your doctor will recommend aspirin. Some people may be taking aspirin with another antiplatelet medicine that is stronger, like clopidogrel, prasugrel, or ticagrelor, after a heart attack or getting a procedure done.

Blood Thinners for Heart Disease: Anticoagulant Medicines

Anticoagulants are a bit newer and work differently than antiplatelet medicines. Anticoagulants slow down the body's process of making blood clots and stop clots from forming in arteries.

These medicines have been used to treat blood clots in the lungs and legs. An anticoagulant, rivaroxaban taken with aspirin, may help prevent a heart attack for people with heart disease.

If the risk of bleeding is low, people with heart disease and those who are at risk for another heart attack may be prescribed an anticoagulant, in addition to other medicines to treat heart disease.

Side Effects of Blood Thinners

Minor bleeding can happen if you are taking a blood thinner.

Serious side effects can also happen, but they are not very common. You should call your doctor if you have:

  • Serious bruising

  • Bleeding for a long time from cuts, the gums, or skin when shaving

  • Nosebleeds that are uncommon or don't stop

  • Coughing up blood

  • Blood in vomit or urine

  • Unusual pain/swelling/discomfort

  • Severe headache, dizziness/fainting, feeling tired

  • Trouble swallowing

Procedures for Heart Disease

Surgical or nonsurgical procedures can help improve blood flow to the heart. Procedures that are typically done to prevent or treat a heart attack include:

  • Balloon angioplasty: A small balloon is inflated inside the blocked heart artery to open it up

  • Stent placement: A thin mesh tube or "stent" can be placed to permanently keep the heart artery open. This is done at the same time as angioplasty

  • Bypass surgery: This major surgery connects blood vessels taken from another part of the body to blood vessels around the blocked artery in your heart

Stent Placement in Artery

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

Ask your doctor these questions to find out how you can lower your risk for a heart attack and if a blood thinner may be right for you:

  • What are my risk factors for a heart attack?

  • Should I be taking a blood thinner?

  • What should I do to keep my heart healthy?

  • When should I get emergency help?

Test Your Knowledge

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You have successfully completed the program Heart Disease 101: Everything You Need to Know.

View Additional Materials on this topic that you may find useful

American Heart Association: Heart Attack

American Heart Association: Life After a Heart Attack

American Heart Association: Healthy Living

American Heart Association: Heart Attack Tools and Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Heart Disease Facts

Authors and Disclosures


Christan T. Ruff, MD, MPH

Director of General CardiologyBrigham and Women’s HospitalSenior Investigator, TIMI Study GroupAssociate Professor of MedicineHarvard Medical SchoolBoston, Massachusetts

 Disclosure: Christian T. Ruff, MD, MPH, has disclosed the following relevant financial relationships: Served as an advisor or consultant for: Anthos; Bayer; Boehringer Ingelheim; Bristol Myers Squibb; Daiichi Sankyo; Janssen; Pfizer; Portola Received grants for clinical research from: Anthos; AstraZeneca; Boehringer Ingelheim; Daiichi Sankyo 

Clinician Reviewer

Susan L. Smith, MN, PhD

Lead Scientific Director, Medscape, LLC

 Disclosure: Susan L. Smith, MN, PhD, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships. 


Asha P. Gupta, PharmD, RPh

Associate Medical Education Director, Medscape, LLC

 Disclosure: Asha P. Gupta, PharmD, RPh, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships. 


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