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What is cardiovascular disease?

CVD is the world's number one killer, causing over
17.5 million deaths per year

Home > World Heart Day 2018 > What is CVD?

Cardiovascular disease continues to be the leading cause of death and disability in the world today

The term ‘cardiovascular disease’ (CVD) refers to any disease of the heart, vascular disease of the brain, or disease of the blood vessel. The most prevalent cardiovascular diseases include coronary heart disease (eg heart attack) and cerebrovascular disease (eg stroke). Controlling key risk factors such as diet, physical activity, tobacco use and blood pressure may reduce an individual’s risk of CVD.

Your heart is the size of your fist and the strongest muscle in your body. Your heart started beating about three weeks after you were conceived. If you live to be 70 your heart will have beaten two and a half billion times.

The heart can become vulnerable from habitual risk factors like smoking, eating an unhealthy diet or putting it under stress. The system can also be weakened from a pre-existing heart condition. When your heart’s functions become compromised, this is known as cardiovascular disease, a broad term that covers any disorder to the system that has the heart at its centre.

According to the Global Atlas on cardiovascular disease prevention and stroke, over 17.5 million deaths each year are caused by CVD. Ischemic heart disease (eg heart attacks) is responsible for 7.3 million of the total CVD deaths and cerebrovascular disease (eg stroke) is responsible for 6.2 million of the total CVD deaths. This makes it the number one cause of death in the world today.

Pupils from Himmafushi School, Maldives, celebrating WHD 2017

CVD risk factors

There are many risk factors associated with coronary heart disease and stroke. Some risk factors, such as family history, cannot be modified, while other risk factors, like high blood pressure, can be modified with treatment.

You will not necessarily develop cardiovascular disease if you have a risk factor.  But the more risk factors you have the greater the likelihood that you will, unless you take action to modify your risk factors and work to prevent them compromising your heart health.

Modifiable risk factors include:

  • Physical inactivity
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Tobacco use
  • Cholesterol
  • Obesity and being overweight

Non-modifiable risk factors include:

  • Family history
  • Diabetes

Other common non-modifiable risk factors include:

  • Age: Simply getting old is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease; risk of stroke doubles every decade after age 55.
  • Gender: Your gender is significant: as a man you are at greater risk of heart disease than a pre-menopausal woman. But once past the menopause, a woman’s risk is similar to a man’s. Risk of stroke is similar for men and women.
  • Ethnicity: Your ethnic origin plays a role. People with African or Asian ancestry are at higher risks of developing cardiovascular disease than other racial groups.
  • Socioeconomic status: Being poor, no matter where in the globe, increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. A chronically stressful life, social isolation, anxiety and depression also increase the risk.

Warning signs

Heart attack warning signs

Some heart attacks are sudden and intense — the “movie heart attack,” where no one doubts what’s happening. But most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Often people affected aren’t sure what’s wrong and wait too long before getting help. Here are signs that can mean a heart attack is happening:

  • Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

Heart attacks often manifest themselves differently in women than in men. As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

Stroke warning signs

A stroke is a medical emergency.  If any of these symptoms appear, don’t delay – get medical help immediately!

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

If experiencing any of these signs, which could come and go, call your emergency services/ambulance immediately.

If there is no emergency response number, seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Learn how cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) pumps oxygenated blood through the body and can help save the life of someone who is unconscious from a sudden cardiac arrest. Also watch videos from our members on how to perform hands-only CPR.

Key facts and figures

Here are some FAQs about the key facts of CVD. Click on the questions below to see the answers

What is the burden of CVD?
An estimated 17.3 million people die of cardiovascular diseases every year. 80% of the deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.

What causes CVD?
There are many risk factors that contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease. Some people are born with conditions that predispose them to heart disease and stroke, but most people who develop cardiovascular disease do so because of a combination of factors such as poor diet, lack of physical activity and smoking, to name just three. The more risk factors you expose yourself to, the higher the chance of developing cardiovascular disease. Many of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease cause problems because they lead to atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the narrowing and thickening of arteries and develops for years without causing symptoms. It can happen in any part of the body. Around the heart, it is known as coronary artery disease, in the legs it is known as peripheral arterial disease.

The narrowing and thickening of the arteries is due to the deposition of fatty material, cholesterol and other substances in the walls of blood vessels. The deposits are known as plaques. The rupture of a plaque can lead to stroke or a heart attack.

What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance used by the body to build cell walls and make several essential hormones. Your liver produces cholesterol and you absorb it from the animal fats you eat. Cholesterol is carried through the blood by particles called lipoproteins. There are two types: low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). The former carries the cholesterol around the body in the blood and the latter transports cholesterol out of the blood into the liver.

When cholesterol is too high, or the levels of the two types are out of balance (dyslipidaemia), the cholesterol can clog the arteries affecting the flow of the blood.

What are triglycerides?
Triglycerides are fats found in the blood that are important for muscle energy. They travel through the blood in lipoproteins. As triglyceride levels rise, HDL cholesterol levels fall. High levels of of triglyceride increase the risk for heart disease. In rare cases, very high levels can lead to pancreatitis. Conditions that may cause high triglycerides include obesity, poorly controlled diabetes, drinking too much alcohol, hypothryroidism, and kidney disease.

How is coronary heart disease diagnosed?
There are a number of ways to diagnose coronary heart disease. Your physician will probably use a number to make a definitive diagnosis. A coronary angiogram uses a dye inserted into your arteries and an x-ray to see how the blood flows through your heart. The picture taken, the angiogram, will show any atherosclerosis.

Another test is an electrocardiogram (EKG). This test records the electrical activity of your heart. An electrocardiogram measures the rate and regularity of heartbeats, the size and position of the heart chambers, the presence of any damage to the heart, and the effects of drugs or devices used to regulate the heart. It is a non-invasive procedure.

How are smoking and heart disease linked?
Smoking damages the lining of blood vessels, increases fatty deposits in the arteries, increases blood clotting, adversely affects blood lipid levels, and promotes coronary artery spasm. Nicotine accelerates the heart rate and raises blood pressure.

Does diet play a part in the development of heart disease?
Diet plays a significant role in protecting or predisposing people to heart disease. Diets high in animal fat, low in fresh vegetables and fruit, and high in alcohol have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease. Adopting a diet low in fat and salt has a protective effect over the long term. This means whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Aren’t women protected from heart disease because of 0estrogen?
Oestrogen does help raise good HDL cholesterol which helps protect women, but once through the menopause as many women as men are affected by heart disease. If a woman suffers from diabetes or has raised levels of triglycerides that cancels out the positive effect of estrogen.

How do the symptoms of a heart attack differ between men and women?
The symptoms of heart attack in a man are intense chest pain, pain in the left arm or jaw and difficulty breathing. A woman may have some of the same symptoms, but her pain may be more diffuse, spreading to the shoulders, neck, arms, abdomen and even her back. A woman may experience pain more like indigestion. The pain may not be consistent. There may not be pain but unexplained anxiety, nausea, dizziness, palpitations and cold sweat. A woman’s heart attack may have been preceded by unexplained fatigue.

Women also tend to have more severe first heart attacks that more frequently lead to death, compared to men.

Is heart disease hereditary?
Heart disease can run in some families. But even if you inherit the risks factors that predispose you to heart disease, such as high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, or being overweight, there are measures you can take that will help you avoid developing cardiovascular disease.Learn how you can help protect your heart.

What counts as hypertension?
Optimal blood pressure is defined as a systolic blood pressure less than 120 mmHg. The level of raised blood pressure for which investigation and treatment have been shown to do more good than harm is called “hypertension”. This is generally defined as a systolic blood pressure of 140 mmHg and/or a diastolic blood pressure at or above 90 mmHg. Systolic blood pressure is the maximum pressure in the arteries when the heart contracts. Diastolic blood pressure is the minimum pressure in the arteries between the heart’s contractions.

What is the connection between raised blood pressure and heart disease?Blood moving through your arteries pushes against the arterial walls; this force is measured as blood pressure. Raised blood pressure occurs when very small arteries (arterioles) tighten. Your heart has to work harder to pump blood through the smaller space and the pressure inside the vessels grows. The constant excess pressure on the artery walls weakens them making them more susceptible to atherosclerosis.

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