News & Events

Know Your Heart – 101

Eric Cohen, M.D.

Cardiovascular disease isn’t an actual disease in itself. Rather, it refers to a wide range of disorders affecting not only the heart (cardio), but the blood vessels (vascular) as well. Since the heart and blood vessels work as one “system,” disorders of the heart or of the blood vessels can affect your overall cardiovascular health. The following information can help you understand how a healthy cardiovascular system works and what can go wrong when cardiovascular disease is present.

How your heart works

Your heart is a muscle that pumps oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. It is divided into two upper chambers (atria) and two lower chambers (ventricles); the left chambers are separated from the right chambers by a wall of tissue. Blood passes from the atria through heart valves (“flaps” that allow blood to flow in one direction only) into the ventricles. The right side of your heart supplies blood to your lungs; the left side of your heart supplies blood to the rest of your body.

What blood vessels do

Blood vessels carry blood throughout the body. There are three kinds of blood vessels: arteries carry oxygen-rich blood away from the heart; veins carry deoxygenated blood from the body back to the heart; and capillaries are extremely small blood vessels that surround and nourish tissue cells. The heart and blood vessels together form the circulatory system.

Common cardiovascular disorders

is chest pain or discomfort which occurs when your heart doesn’t get as much blood and oxygen as it needs. Over time, the coronary arteries that supply blood to your heart can become clogged from a buildup of fats, cholesterol and other substances. If one or more arteries are partly clogged, not enough blood can flow through, and you can feel chest pain or discomfort. While the pain of angina may come and go, it’s a sign of heart disease.

Atherosclerosis is a buildup of fatty substances called plaques on the inner walls of blood vessels which can cause narrowing or blockages. These blockages can restrict or totally block blood flow and can cause a heart attack (when blood flow to the heart stops) or stroke (when blood flow to the brain is affected).

Atrial Fibrillation is a condition where the two small upper chambers or atria of the heart don’t beat the way they should. Instead of beating in a regular, normal pattern, the atria beat irregularly and too fast. You can live with atrial fibrillation, but it can lead to other rhythm problems, chronic fatigue, heart failure and worst of all, stroke. 

Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) refers to atherosclerosis of the arteries that nourish the heart muscle. CAD is a major risk factor for heart attack since narrowed coronary arteries can’t provide adequate oxygen to the heart. Blood clots also can form on the fatty walls which can totally cut off blood supply (coronary thrombosis).

Heart Attacks occur when the blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked. This happens because coronary arteries that supply the heart with blood slowly become thicker and harder from a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances, called plaque. If the plaque breaks open and a blood clot forms which blocks the blood flow, a heart attack occurs. Then the heart muscle supplied by that artery begins to die. Damage increases the longer an artery stays blocked.

High Blood Pressure (Hypertension) means that the pressure your blood exerts against the walls of the blood vessels is dangerously high. This excess pressure weakens artery walls and decreases their elasticity, forcing the heart to pump harder. Arteries also can break due to this excess force and can cause a hemorrhage (excessive bleeding).

Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD) refers to a range of disorders that affect the blood vessels in the legs, feet, arms or hands. Blood clots (thrombophlebitis, venous thrombosis), atherosclerosis and varicose veins are all varieties of PVD.
Knowledge of these definitions will allow you to have constructive conversations with your healthcare provider regarding plans of care and treatment. It is vital you understand what is happening to your body. Remember, knowledge is power.

To learn more about these conditions or to be screened for cardiovascular disease, contact the Heart & Vascular Center of Northern Arizona (HVCNA) at 877 928-WELL.

HVCNA is a partnership between Flagstaff Medical Center and Verde Valley Medical Center. It combines physician office practices with extensive hospital-based services including diagnostic and interventional cardiology procedures and open heart surgery. HVCNA offices are located in Flagstaff, Cottonwood, Camp Verde, Sedona and Winslow. For more information on the Heart & Vascular Center of Northern Arizona, visit

Dr. Eric Cohen, interventional cardiologist, is the medical director of Peripheral Vascular Intervention at the Heart & Vascular Center of Northern Arizona. Dr. Cohen specializes in vascular care and the treatment of peripheral arterial disease and limb salvage.