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It can be difficult to differentiate among the various conditions that can affect the heart. In this lesson, we’ll eliminate some of the confusion and specifically clarify the differences between heart failure and heart attack.

Cardiovascular Disease

There are a lot of confusing medical terms thrown around to describe conditions affecting the heart and the network of blood vessels that carry blood and nutrients throughout the body. Collectively, the heart and blood vessels are called the cardiovascular system, and any disease affecting them is called cardiovascular disease.

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This is a general term that may also be referred to as heart disease; both are used to include all medical conditions affecting the cardiovascular system.

Heart Attack

One specific type of cardiovascular (or heart) disease is called coronary artery disease. As the name suggests, it affects the coronary arteries of the heart; these are the arteries that supply oxygenated blood to the heart. With coronary artery disease, deposits called plaques accumulate inside the blood vessels, causing them to narrow over time.Plaque is made of cholesterol, fats, and other substances found in the blood, and as it builds up, there’s less and less room for blood to flow through. Sometimes a piece of plaque can break off and get stuck, causing a clot and blocking blood flow completely.

When this happens, the heart is deprived of oxygen and its cells begin to die. This process is called a heart attack.

Heart attacks are caused by blockages in the arteries that carry oxygenated blood to the heart.
heart attack diagram

A heart attack is a serious medical condition that requires immediate attention. It’s critical to get the blood flowing again as soon as possible to limit the amount of cell death and permanent damage undergone by the heart.

Heart Failure

Now we have a pretty good understanding of heart attacks, so let’s change gears and look more closely at heart failure. Heart failure is another type of cardiovascular disease, but it is different than a heart attack.There are different types of heart failure. It can affect only one half of the heart (like the right ventricle or the left ventricle) or it can affect the entire heart (called congestive heart failure). In general, heart failure isn’t a sudden condition; rather, it’s a condition that gradually gets worse over time.With heart failure, the heart loses its ability to pump blood or cycle blood throughout itself evenly (the heart has four chambers that each have a role in pumping blood efficiently throughout the body).

When the ability to pump blood is diminished, this means there are parts of the body not getting enough oxygenated blood. Just like we learned with the heart attack, when any area doesn’t receive oxygenated blood, the cells will begin to die. Heart failure causes organ damage due to oxygen deprivation, fluid build-up in the lungs, and abnormal kidney function.

Heart failure causes a number of symptoms, shown here.
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