What is Cardiovascular Disease

What is Cardiovascular Disease?

Cardiovascular diseases are a group of conditions caused by the build up of plaque (hardened blood clots) in arteries. These clots block blood flow through the arteries leading to vital organs such as your heart, lungs, brain and other vital parts of the body.

The most common cause of cardiovascular disease is high cholesterol levels. High cholesterol levels increase the risk of developing coronary artery disease. Other causes include smoking, obesity, diabetes mellitus and certain medical conditions such as hypertension, hypercholesterolemia and atherosclerosis.

The symptoms of high cholesterol levels include chest pain (angina), shortness of breath, leg pain during exercise (intermittent claudication), fatigue, and erectile dysfunction.

Treatment will depend on the cause of the condition, however, in most cases medication is required.

What are the types of cardiovascular diseases?

Arrhythmias: Arrhythmias are an irregular heartbeat. The electrical signals are not regular, causing the heart to beat too fast, too slow or erratically.

Atrial Fibrillation: This is an abnormal heart rhythm that causes an irregular and often abnormally fast beating.

Atrial Flutter: This is a form of irregular heart rhythm where the two upper chambers of the heart quiver. This results in inefficient blood flow.

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Heart Attack (Myocardial Infarction): This happens when an area of the heart is deprived of oxygenated blood. The area begins to die and can lead to heart failure or death.

Heart Failure: The heart cannot pump blood as effectively as it should. This can result in fluid accumulating in the lungs (pulmonary edema) or legs (peripheral edema).

Malfunction of Heart Valves: The valves do not close completely, or they close at the wrong time. Blood can leak from the heart into the body or vice versa.

What are the causes of cardiovascular disease?

Coronary Artery Disease (CAD): This is the most common form of cardiovascular disease. The arteries that supply the heart with blood are narrowed by atherosclerosis. This leads to chest pain and decreased blood flow to the heart.

Cholesterol: Certain types of cholesterol (LDL, HDL and triglycerides) are associated with the development of plaque in the arteries. High levels of blood lipids (fats like cholesterol) can increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Diabetes: This increases the risk of coronary artery disease.

Erectile Dysfunction: Erectile dysfunction is a condition that causes males to be unable to maintain an erection long enough to have sexual activity.

Obesity: People who are obese have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

Smoking: Smoking increases the risk of developing lung cancer and is a major risk factor for heart disease.

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Stroke: Also called cerebrovascular accident, this occurs when oxygen deprived blood can’t flow to the brain. One type of stroke is caused by a blood clot, another type is caused by bleeding.

What are the risk factors for cardiovascular disease?

Some factors increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, others decrease it.

Increasing Your Risk:

Atherosclerosis (plaque buildup in the arteries)

Cholesterol (increases the risk of atherosclerosis)

Diabetes mellitus

Elevated blood pressure

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Elevated triglycerides

Family history of heart disease or stroke

Lack of physical activity



Decreasing Your Risk:

Aspirin for primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular events

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Diet low in fat and high in fruit, vegetables, and whole grains


Mediterranean diet

What are the symptoms of cardiovascular disease?

The symptoms of cardiovascular disease include chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, numbness, and fainting.

How is cardiovascular disease diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask about your medical history and give you a physical exam. At times, additional tests such as an electrocardiogram (EKG) or a chest x-ray are required.

If CAD is suspected, your doctor will probably refer you to a cardiologist who specializes in diseases of the heart and blood vessels.

The cardiologist will give you an EKG and may do a cardiac catheterization. During this test, a long, thin tube called a catheter is put into an artery in your groin and threaded through the blood vessels into your heart. A small balloon at the tip of the catheter can squeeze tight against a plaque and push it against a blood vessel wall to open up the artery.

Stents are tiny, cage-like devices that can be put in place to keep the artery open.

Stress test is another test that may be done to check how well your heart works during exercise.

What is the treatment for cardiovascular disease?

Drugs: The first step in treating cardiovascular disease is medication. Drugs that lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels are commonly used to treat the diseases.

Diet: You may need to change your diet and stop smoking. Quitting smoking is very beneficial because it reduces the risk of developing heart disease by as much as 50 percent.

Exercise: Regular exercise can help you lower your risk for cardiovascular disease and also relieve stress.

Heart Surgery: In some cases, heart surgery may be required to repair damage to the heart.

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Angioplasty with or without Stenting: This is a percutaneous procedure that is used to treat heart attacks caused by coronary artery blockages. A catheter is guided through the arteries to the coronary arteries. There, the doctor can inflate a balloon which is used to “unclog” an obstructed artery.

Stents can be placed to keep the artery open.

Heart transplant: This is surgery to replace a patient’s diseased heart with a healthy heart from a donor.

What are the complications of cardiovascular disease?

The complications of cardiovascular disease can include heart attack (myocardial infarction) or stroke.

How can you prevent cardiovascular disease?

You may reduce your risk of developing heart disease through diet, exercise, and not smoking.

Diet: Follow a diet low in fat and high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Exercise: Participating in regular exercise lowers your blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight. It also increases your heart and lung capacity and improves the ability of your blood to carry oxygen.

Quit Smoking: Avoid smoking because it can lead to heart disease, stroke, and several types of cancer.

Last Editorial Review: 6/9/2005

Source: MedTerms™ Medical Dictionary

Sources & references used in this article:

Fast 5:2 Diet Evidence

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