8 Facts You Should Know About the Most Common Cardiovascular Diseases

Cardiovascular Diseases (CVDs) Come in Many Different Forms. These are Key Facts Everybody Should Know in Easy-to-Understand Language

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Dan Brown

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is an umbrella under which heart attack, cardiac arrest, coronary heart disease, and many more fall. It is also extremely complex and cutting through the jargon is not always easy. In this article we explain eight of the most important phrases relating to CVDs in easy-to-understand language.

Quick Guide:

  • Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) – An umbrella term for all heart and circulatory diseases

  • Atherosclerosis – A disease that causes plaque (fat, cholesterol, and calcium) to build up in the arteries, causing them to narrow and restricting blood flow

  • Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) – When atherosclerosis occurs in the coronary arteries, which supply blood-rich blood to the heart. Also known as Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) and Ischaemic Heart Disease (IHD)

  • Angina – The chest pain caused by restricted blood flow to the heart

  • Heart Attack – When blood flow to the heart is prevented, usually due to a clot forming on plaque in the arteries, damaging or destroying heart muscle. Also called myocardial infarction

  • Stroke – Caused by poor blood flow to the brain. When caused by blocked arteries, it is known as ischemic stroke

  • Heart Arrhythmia – An umbrella term for an abnormal or irregular heartbeat

  • Cardiac Arrest – A sudden malfunction of the heart that causes it to stop beating, preventing blood from being pumped to the vital organs

Cardiovascular Diseases: An Umbrella Term

Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) are the biggest cause of death worldwide. At an estimated 17.7 million, nearly one-third of all deaths were attributed to CVDs in 2015.

Of these, over 7 million were caused by coronary heart disease (CHD) and just under another 7 million were due to stroke.

The term ‘cardiovascular diseases’ refers to any disease of the heart or blood vessels.

There are many of them, often sharing characteristics, symptoms, or underlying causes. They can affect anything from your feet to your brain and everything in between.

While you could fill a library with books explaining every nuance of CVDs, in this article we examine some of the most common conditions, causes, and characteristics.

Diverse though CVDs are, they often have one common source…

Atherosclerosis: At the Heart of CVDs

Your arteries carry oxygen-rich blood from the left side of your heart and deliver it around the body. Oxygenated blood fuels your body and turns fats, carbohydrates, and protein from food into energy. Without enough oxygen, cells around the body begin to die and the tissue of the organs is damaged.

The first port of call for the oxygen-rich blood is actually back to the heart, ensuring it has the energy to pump over 100,000 times each day.

Arteries, in delivering oxygen-rich blood, clearly play a hugely important role in keeping your body working. However, when the inside walls of arteries are damaged – often as a result of high blood pressure (hypertension) – fatty plaque can get caught and stick.

As the plaque builds up and hardens, it narrows the arteries and means the walls are no longer smooth. This process is called atherosclerosis and it makes it harder for blood to flow. This is a significant step in the development of many cardiovascular diseases.

Atherosclerosis can also lead to aneurysms – which are bulges in the wall of the arteries caused by the increased pressure required to force blood through the narrowed space. If an aneurysm bursts, it can be life-threatening.

Atherosclerosis often occurs to some degree in early adulthood and continues developing throughout your life, making age a key risk factor.

The rate at which it develops depends largely on lifestyle choices; high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol, poor diet, and lack of exercise are significant risk factors.

Atherosclerosis is much like hypertension. Neither tend to cause noticeable symptoms but are often precursors for serious diseases and conditions.

The name silent killer that is often attributed to hypertension is equally apt for atherosclerosis. A common complication caused by atherosclerosis is…

Coronary Heart Disease: CHD, CAD, or IHD

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is also known as coronary artery disease and ischaemic heart disease, although the latter is somewhat archaic.

It is the most common cause of death in the world.

As mentioned at the beginning of the previous section, your arteries deliver oxygen-rich blood around the body. The coronary arteries are the ones that do so to the heart. There are two main coronary arteries, one supplying the left side of your heart, the other the right side.

When atherosclerosis occurs in your coronary arteries, it is CHD.

As is the case elsewhere in the body, atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries doesn’t lead to symptoms right away.

However, as the plaque builds up over time, it is more likely to lead to symptoms. For example, mild physical exertion can lead to shortness of breath or fatigue, as your heart struggles to pump adequate blood around the body.

You may be more prone to prolonged period of coughing, as well as swelling in your legs, ankles, and feet. An extensive list of symptoms can be found here.

Perhaps the most significant symptom is...

Angina: A Pain in the Chest

The most common symptom of coronary heart disease is chest pain, known as angina.

It has also been described as discomfort; a feeling of pressure, squeezing, burning, or fullness.

This feeling can occur in your shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, or back, as well as your chest.

Stable angina (or angina pectoris) typically occurs with physical or emotional stress and will usually last a few minutes.

However, there are different types. Unstable angina is less predictable, more likely to occur at rest, and may last longer. Unstable angina is considered an emergency and must be treated immediately.

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There are two other forms – Prinzmetal angina and microvascular angina. The former is quite rare and caused by spasms in the coronary arteries. The latter is caused by CHD specifically in the smallest blood vessels of the coronary arteries. It tends to be more severe and last longer than stable angina.

Angina is far from the only origin of chest pain, and it can be difficult to differentiate from other causes.

It goes without saying, though, that any chest pain should be taken seriously and checked out by a healthcare professional.

Angina is often a precursor to…

Myocardial Infarction: A Heart Attack

8 people in the USA will have had a heart attack since you started reading this article (if you read at a fairly normal rate).

Somewhere in the region of 800,000 heart attacks happen each year in the country, about three-quarters of which occur in people who have never had one before.

They occur when the heart is starved of oxygen-rich blood, usually as a result of coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis. It is not actually the plaque itself that causes a coronary artery to block. However, when the plaque ruptures, blood can clot on the surface.

It is the blot clot that either restricts or completely blocks the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart.

As is the case for any other organ, the lack of oxygen causes damage to the tissue of the heart, weakening it and impairing its ability to pump blood around the body.

Heart attacks can be quite sudden, as is usually the case in dramatic television shows and films. It is more common, however, for symptoms to begin hours, days, or even weeks in advance, and gradually worsen.

Possible symptoms are similar to those listed above for angina, as well as light-headedness, nausea, or vomiting.

While chest pain is common to both men and women, women are more likely to experience the other symptoms.

Many people are unaware of the gradual way many heart attacks progress and are often surprised when they learn they have had one.

Unfortunately, it also means many people ignore the symptoms, which can result in more severe damage to the heart and even death.

The advice given by every health institution is the same: if you experience these symptoms, even if you are not sure you are having a heart attack, call the emergency services.

Atherosclerosis can also restrict blood flow to other vital organs. When it does so to the brain, the result is…

Stroke: A Brain Attack

There are two major types of stroke: ischemic stroke and haemorrhagic stroke. The latter is less common, caused by a ruptured blood vessel in the brain.

Ischemic stroke is more common, accounting for nearly 90% of the 800,000 or so strokes that occur each year in the USA. 1 in 4 strokes are fatal.

The process leading ischemic stroke is often very similar to that of a heart attack.

Rather than a blot clot forming in the coronary arteries, it can occur in a blood vessel supplying oxygen-rich blood to the brain. Again, the root of this can be traced to atherosclerosis.

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Around half of all strokes can be traced back to atherosclerosis.

When it comes to symptoms, the FAST mnemonic is commonly used:

Face dropping

Arm weakness

Speech difficulties

Time to call the emergency services

As is the case with heart attacks, time is critical. Quick treatment is essential in mitigating the risk of death or serious brain damage, so if you think you or someone else is having a stroke, contact the emergency services immediately.

As well as atherosclerosis, another heart condition is a leading cause of stroke…

Heart Arrhythmia: Fast, Slow, or Irregular Heartbeat

Heart arrhythmias are conditions that cause the heart to beat too fast, too slow, or irregularly.

There are many different types of heart arrhythmia, some of which are more serious than others.

One of the most common, and the one most likely to cause a stroke, is atrial fibrillation. It is a defect in the heart’s natural pacemaker that interrupts the electrical impulses controlling your heartbeat. Specifically, it affects the top two chambers of the heart, called the atria.

Instead of fully contracting 60-80 times per minute as they should, the atria ‘quiver’ (fibrillate) 300-400 times. A more detailed explanation can be found here: AFib: Everything You Need to Know About the Leading Cause of Stroke

This means that not all the blood is deposited to the lower two chambers, the ventricles, as it should be.

The remaining blood is left to pool in the atria. When blood is left to sit like that, it tends to clot. If such a clot breaks loose it can find its way into the bloodstream and blood vessels.

And, just like clots that form in the blood vessels, those that have formed in the heart and entered the bloodstream can block the supply of oxygen-rich blood to the brain. The result, again, is ischemic stroke.

That is why those living with atrial fibrillation are at five times greater risk of stroke than the general population.

While heart arrhythmias can generally be treated with medication, the problem is that they often go undetected. Like high blood pressure and atherosclerosis, arrhythmias are often symptomless before causing a serious complication.

With atrial fibrillation occurring in the heart’s upper chambers, the atria, it is no surprise that ventricular fibrillation occurs in the lower chambers, the ventricles.

It is similar to atrial fibrillation, insomuch as the electrical signals become chaotic and the heart quivers rather than fully contracting.

However, because the job of the ventricles is to pump blood around the body, the effects are much more sudden and drastic than with atrial fibrillation. The result is…

Sudden Cardiac Arrest: A Fatal Consequence

Many people use the terms cardiac arrest and heart attack interchangeably, but the two conditions are extremely different both in how they occur, and their severity.

Once a heart arrhythmia such as ventricle fibrillation has stopped the heart from pumping blood around the body, cardiac arrest occurs.

As the brain stops functioning, causing the rest of the organs to do likewise, one will fall unconscious within seconds and die within minutes without medical attention. Around 9 out of 10 sudden cardiac arrests are fatal.

In most cases, sudden cardiac arrest occurs in people with another underlying heart condition such as coronary heart disease.

While symptoms such as dizziness, chest pain, and shortness of breath can occur leading up to cardiac arrest, it usually hits without warning.

A key piece of equipment in saving the life of someone who has sudden cardiac arrest is a defibrillator, which uses electrical impulses to restore a regular heartbeat. However, when misused they can do more harm than good.

In sudden cardiac arrest that occurs outside of a hospital, a defibrillator is not usually available anyway. The best chance of survival is for immediate CPR do be delivered by a bystander.

Interestingly, compression-only CPR (without mouth-to-mouth) may prove more effective than conventional CPR.

Learning how to give CPR, either compression-only or conventional, could be a life-saving tool.

This article only scratches the surface when it comes to cardiovascular diseases. It is a deeply complex subject, and one we are always learning more about.

However, this basic information gives you a fundamental understanding of many cardiovascular conditions, how they are often linked to one-another, and how they can affect your entire body.

If you would like to learn more about how cardiovascular diseases are related to other, less obvious, conditions, why not read our post: 5 Conditions with Surprising Links to Heart Diseases

Take a look at some of the other posts on the MyTherapy blog:

We hope the information in this article is useful. However, it should not be used as a substitute for professional advice. If you have any questions regarding cardiovascular diseases or are concerned about your health, please contact a healthcare professional.

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