heart disease, any of several abnormalities of the heart and its function in maintaining blood circulation. Heart disease is the cause of approximately half the deaths in the United States each year. Among the most common causes of heart disease are degenerative changes in the coronary blood vessels, infectious diseases, and congenital heart disease. Congenital defects result from abnormal development of the fetal heart, commonly in the valves or septa. Such defects can be precipitated by environmental conditions in the uterus, such as the presence of the rubella virus, or they can be inherited. Infectious diseases acquired after birth, such as rheumatic fever, syphilis, and endocarditis, can also damage the valves of the heart. In addition, the heart muscle itself can be affected: hypertensive heart disease (see hypertension) can cause it to enlarge, and it can become inflamed by rheumatic fever. Arteriosclerotic depositions in the coronary arteries result in the narrowing of these vessels, causing insufficient blood flow and oxygen to the heart muscle, a condition known as coronary artery disease. The characteristic radiating chest pain, angina pectoris, is the most prominent symptom of this condition. Coronary arteries already narrowed by arteriosclerosis are made susceptible to blockage by a clot (coronary thrombosis), causing the death of the heart muscle supplied by the affected artery, a life-threatening event called a myocardial infarction, or heart attack. Hypertensive, coronary, congenital, and other forms of cardiovascular disease, either singly or in combination, can lead to a state in which the heart is unable to expel sufficient blood for the metabolic demands of the body, ultimately resulting in congestive heart failure. Disturbances in the normal heartbeat, called arrhythmias, can occur by themselves or in conjunction with other heart problems, for example infarction affecting the area of the heart that controls the heartbeat.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.