What is heart disease?

Heart disease is any condition that affects the structure or function of the heart. Most people think of heart disease as one condition. But in fact, heart disease is a group of conditions with many different root causes.

Types of heart disease

There are many different types of heart disease. Some types can be grouped together according to how they affect the structure or function of your heart.  

  1. Coronary artery and vascular disease are due to hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). Coronary artery disease happens when the arteries in your heart are narrowed or blocked. It’s the most common kind of heart disease and causes most heart attacks as well as angina (chest pain). Vascular disease is problems in other blood vessels which reduce blood flow and affect the function of your heart.
  2. Heart rhythm disorders (arrhythmias) cause the heart to beat too slowly, too quickly or in a disorganised fashion. Millions of Canadians experience heart rhythm disorders which disrupt blood flow. There are many types of arrhythmias – some have no symptoms or warning signs; others can be sudden and fatal.
  3. Structural heart disease refers to abnormalities of the heart’s structure – including its valves, walls, muscles or blood vessels near the heart. It can be present at birth (congenital) or acquired after birth through infection, wear and tear, or other factors. People living with heart defects and their families need support throughout every age and stage of their life, often requiring ongoing medical care and surgical procedures.
  4. Heart failure Heart failure is a serious condition that develops after the heart becomes damaged or weakened. The two most common causes of heart failure are heart attack and high blood pressure. There is no cure, but early diagnosis, lifestyle changes and medication can help people lead an active life, stay out of hospital and live longer.

Other heart diseases include infections, enlarged heart muscle and inherited disorders. If you would like more information on  one type of heart disease in particular, look in the Heart/conditions section of this website.


Heart disease can be caused by:


Heart disease is preventable. And if you’ve been diagnosed with a heart condition, there are ways you can reduce your risk of developing more heart problems. Consider these heart-healthy steps:

  • Be smoke-free.
  • Be physically active.
  • Know and control your blood pressure.
  • Eat a healthy diet that is lower in fat, especially saturated and trans fat.
  • Achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Manage your diabetes.
  • Limit alcohol use.
  • Reduce stress.
  • Visit your doctor regularly and follow their advice.

For more information about how to live a healthier lifestyle, look in the Healthy living section of this website.


To diagnose heart disease, your healthcare provider will review your medical and family history, and give you a complete physical exam. They may also run tests. The type of tests depends on the signs and symptoms you are experiencing.


Treatment for heart disease includes medication, lifestyle changes (healthy eating, stay active, reduce stress) and surgery or other procedures. Treatment depends on the type and severity of your heart disease. You and your doctor will discuss the treatment options and decide which is best for you and your circumstances.


Cardiac rehabilitation is a personalised program of exercise, education and counselling to help you recover from heart disease. Rehab will help you regain your strength and reduce your risk of having other heart problems in the future. Talk to your doctor about how to find a program in your area or contact your public health department or hospital. The Canadian Association of Cardiac Rehabilitation also has a cardiac rehab directory to help you find a program in your community.
It’s normal to feel worried or afraid after a diagnosis of heart disease. Find someone you can turn to for emotional support like a family member, friend, doctor, mental health worker or support group. Talking about your challenges and feelings could be an important part of your journey to recovery.