Maine Cardiovascular Health Program

What is Heart Disease?

Some of the most common kinds of heart disease are

  • Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)
  • Heart Attack
  • Angina
  • Heart Failure
  • Arrhythmias

Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)

Coronary artery disease (CAD) occurs when a substance called plaque builds up in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. Plaque is made up of cholesterol deposits. This process can cause the arteries to narrow and harden over time, which is known as atherosclerosis. As the plaque buildup increases in size, the insides of the coronary arteries get narrower and less blood can flow through them. Eventually, blood flow to the heart muscle is reduced, and the heart muscle is not able to get the oxygen it needs. This can lead to a heart attack (also called myocardial infarction).

During a heart attack, flow of blood to the heart is severely reduced or stopped and heart muscle is damaged and soon begins to die. The more time that passes without treatment, the greater the damage.

Some heart attacks are sudden and intense, your typical “Hollywood heart attack”. But most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Often people having a heart attack do not realize what is happening and delay calling 911 until it is too late. It is important to learn the symptoms of a heart attack and call 911 if you think you or someone else is having a heart attack.


Angina, a symptom of Coronary Artery Disease, is chest pain or discomfort that occurs when the heart does not get enough blood. People describe angina as discomfort, pressure, or pain in the chest, back, neck, shoulders, arms (especially the left arm), or jaw.

Heart Failure

Heart failure is a condition in which your heart can’t pump enough blood to meet your body’s needs. It does not mean your heart has stopped. Key symptoms of heart failure include shortness of breath, a dry and hacking cough, weight gain, swelling, and fatigue. A heart transplant is the only cure for heart failure but it can be managed with medication.


An arrhythmia is an abnormally fast or slow heartbeat. An arrhythmia can also mean that your heart beats irregularly (skips a beat or has an extra beat). At some time or another, most people have felt their heart race or skip a beat. These occasional changes can be brought on by strong emotions or exercise. They are usually not a cause for alarm. Arrhythmias that occur more often or cause symptoms may be more serious and need to be discussed with your doctor.