Congenital vs. Acquired Heart Defects

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Not all heart disease is the same. Some people are born with defects, while others develop diseases later in life. In this lesson we'll look at both types of heart disease, called congenital and acquired heart diseases.

Heart Disease

You've likely heard about heart disease because it is a leading killer in the United States. Many people die every year from various heart diseases, which range from the minor to the fatal. Some heart disease is preventable, while other times people are born with defects.

When a person is born with a defect or disease it is referred to as congenital. This comes from 'con,' meaning 'with' or 'together,' and 'genitus' or 'gene.' But when a person develops a heart defect or disease that they are not born with, it is acquired. Let's take a closer look at congenital and acquired heart diseases to gain a better understanding of each.

Congenital Heart Disease

The most common type of birth defect is congenital heart disease, claiming more lives by age 1 than any other birth defect. There are two types of congenital heart disease. The first is cyanotic, which are defects that lead to a low blood oxygen level and cause the baby to have a bluish (cyan) skin color. The other type of defect is called acyanotic (a = 'not' or 'no').

Some congenital heart defects are minor and can either be easily repaired or require no treatment at all. Other defects may be quite severe and require major surgery. And some defects may be so severe that they are fatal. People with congenital heart defects that are not fatal can go on to live normal lives, or they may need to take medications and monitor their condition.

There are many different kinds of congenital heart defects
two examples of congenital heart defects

Congenital heart defects cause problems because blood does not flow normally through the heart. Defects may be in the interior walls of the heart, the valves, or even the arteries and veins. The causes of congenital heart defects are varied. They may be part of a genetic or chromosomal disorder, including Down syndrome, Marfan syndrome, and Turner syndrome. Other times the cause may be unknown. However, they rarely occur with other birth defects. Some congenital heart defects include:

  • Aortic stenosis
  • Atrial septal defect
  • Atrioventricular canal (endocardial cushion defect)
  • Coarctation of the aorta
  • Ebstein's anomaly
  • Hypoplastic left heart
  • Patent ductus arteriosus
  • Pulmonary atresia
  • Pulmonic stenosis
  • Ventricular septal defect
  • Tricuspid atresia
  • Truncus arteriosus

Acquired Heart Disease

Many people think of acquired heart disease as something that only happens to adults. While acquired heart disease is more common in adults, it also occurs in children. The two most common acquired heart diseases in children are Kawasaki disease and rheumatic heart disease. Kawasaki disease causes inflammation in blood vessels, causing damage to arteries. Rheumatic heart disease is caused by streptococcal bacteria and leads to scarring of the heart valves. Kawasaki disease occurs mostly in children under the age of 5, while rheumatic heart disease is most likely to be seen in children from ages 5 - 15.

Coronary heart disease is caused by a build up of plaque in the arteries
artery with plaque build up

In adults, acquired heart disease is commonly seen as coronary heart disease, which involves a buildup of plaque in a person's arteries. This reduces blood flow, which also limits oxygen since oxygen is carried by blood. Eventually, coronary heart disease can lead to a heart attack. It can also lead to problems with your heartbeat rate and rhythm, known as arrhythmias.

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