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Cardiovascular disease

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the collective name for conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels. It is a leading cause of death in the US. It is caused by a build-up of plaque in the arteries of the heart, as well as arteries delivering blood and oxygen to the brain, kidneys, and eyes. Plaque build-up puts these vessels at increased risk of obstruction as well as increased risk of clots within the blood.

What are the types of CVD?

There are four main types of CVD, let's talk you through them.

Coronary heart disease is where blood flow to the heart muscle is disrupted or blocked, thereby reducing the amount of oxygen to this area. This can lead to conditions like angina, heart attacks, and heart failure. 

Aortic disease: the aorta is the largest blood vessel in the body and is responsible for carrying oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the rest of the body. Damage occurs when the walls of this vessel weaken and bulges occur. These bulges can cause a small or major tear, ultimately leading to a catastrophic bleed. 

In a stroke, the blood supply to the brain is permanently disrupted, leading to damage or death of the brain's cells.  A transient ischemic attack, commonly known as a TIA, is caused by similar damage to arteries leading to the brain. Still, the blockage is temporary, and therefore symptoms get better within 24 hours – it acts as a warning shot that someone is at risk of a stroke and should be treated.

Peripheral arterial disease occurs with a blockage in the arteries of the limbs, mainly the legs. This can cause symptoms like leg cramps when walking, which improves with rest, as well as on/off numbness and weakness.

What puts you at risk of CVD?

Many things put you at increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease. 

There are certain risk factors that you can’t change, including:

  • Your family history - if people in your family (siblings or parents) have a history of CVD before the age of 65, then this increases your risk of developing CVD
  • Your ethnicity - it is more common in people of African, Caribbean, or south Asian descent
  • Your age - the risk of developing CVD increases over the age of 50
  • Your gender - men are more likely to develop CVD than women

There are risk factors that you can control and change, including:

  • Smoking cigarettes, which can lead to damaged and narrowed blood vessels, as well as a raised blood pressure and cholesterol level 
  • Diabetes mellitus, where high blood sugar levels can lead to narrowed blood vessels
  • Reduced exercise and obesity increase your risk of developing diabetes, high cholesterol, and raised blood pressure, which in turn also impacts the vessels

How can you reduce the risk of CVD?

You should schedule yearly visits with your doctor, where they will screen for many risk factors for important diseases, including diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and monitor your weight. 

If you are found to have any risk factors, you will be invited for regular reviews of risk factors you can work on to reduce the chance of worsening CVD.

There are a number of things you can do yourself to stay in the best of heart health, such as eating a healthy balanced diet and exercising regularly. This helps to maintain a healthy weight and reduce your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as reduce your risk of developing diabetes or improve these conditions if you have been diagnosed.

It is very important, if you smoke, to stop smoking as soon as possible. It is also important to reduce the amount of alcohol that you drink, keeping it to less than 14 units a week. 

What will my doctor do?

If you have multiple risk factors, your doctor may consider starting you on medications before a significant disease develops. For example, statins help to lower your blood cholesterol levels, aspirin to thin the blood, tablets to reduce blood pressure, or tablets for diabetes if you have been diagnosed with prediabetes or diabetes.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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