Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a term that refers to conditions affecting blood vessels and the heart which includes heart and circulatory diseases, coronary heart disease, heart attacks, angina, congenital heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), stroke, and vascular dementia. In the UK, cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death and disability. Here we’ll take an in-depth look at cardiovascular disease including its symptoms and treatments.
What is cardiovascular disease and its associated symptoms?
Cardiovascular disease, also known as heart and circulatory disease, is a general name given to conditions which affect the circulation and the heart. It may also be linked to damaged arteries in organs such as the eyes, brain, heart and kidneys.
There are 4 primary types of cardiovascular disease:
- Coronary heart disease can occur if the flow of oxygen to the heart is limited, putting additional strain on the heart. The most common symptoms are chest pains (angina), breathlessness and coronary heart disease (CHD). Eventually this increased strain can lead to heart attacks and even heart failure.
- A stroke happens when the supply of blood to parts of the brain is stopped. This is a serious condition that can potentially cause brain damage and even death. The signs of a stroke will depend on which area of the brain is affected, but the main ones can be remembered with the word FAST (face, arms, speech, time). Transient ischaemic attacks (TIAs) are also known as ‘mini-strokes’ as they can have the same symptoms although they tend not to last as long. A TIA happens when the supply of blood to the brain is temporarily disrupted. You should always seek medical help if you experience any of the symptoms, even if you feel they have passed.
- Peripheral arterial disease is caused by a blockage of the arteries in the limbs, typically in the legs. Symptoms associated with peripheral arterial disease include dull or cramping leg pain, loss of hair on the feet or legs, numbness of the feet or legs and persistent ulcers in this area.
- Aortic diseases affect the aorta, the largest blood vessel in the body, which carries blood from the heart around the body. An aortic aneurysm (a bulge or swelling in the aorta) is one of the most common aortic diseases and although it doesn’t normally have any symptoms it can lead to potentially life threatening internal bleeding.
If you think you’re experiencing any of the symptoms relating to these conditions, contact your GP to discuss them further. If you believe you’re having a medical emergency, call 999 immediately.
What causes cardiovascular disease?
Although the specific causes of cardiovascular disease aren’t clear, there are risk factors which are known to increase your chances of getting it.
Cardiovascular disease risk factors include:
- High blood pressure (hypertension) – if your blood pressure is too high it can damage blood vessels over time.
- Smoking – the harmful substances in tobacco can damage and narrow your blood vessels.
- High cholesterol – cholesterol is the fatty substance found in the blood and high levels of certain types can narrow your blood vessels and increase the risk of a blood clot.
- Diabetes – a condition which results in raised blood sugar levels. These high sugar levels can then damage the circulation.
- Being overweight or obese – being overweight increases the risk of diabetes and high blood pressure.
- Physical inactivity – exercise keeps the heart and circulation healthy in the longer term; inactivity also increases the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and many other problems.
- Family history – if you’ve got cardiovascular disease in your family then it increases the risk of you getting it. This should be discussed with your doctor.
The good news is that in most cases, the risk of cardiovascular disease can be significantly reduced by adopting a healthier lifestyle.
What can I do to prevent cardiovascular disease?
You can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by making changes to your lifestyle. And if you have already been diagnosed, living healthier can prevent it worsening.
To minimise the risk of cardiovascular disease you should:
- Stop smoking
- Eat a balanced diet (the NHS Eat Well scheme can help)
- Exercise on a regular basis (try the Government’s Better Health resources)
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Moderate your alcohol intake
- Always take the medicines you’re prescribed exactly as agreed with your doctor
What cardiovascular disease treatments are available?
If there’s a high risk that you’ll develop cardiovascular disease, a GP may prescribe medication to help reduce this risk. Common medicines to do this include statins, which work by reducing the levels of harmful cholesterol in your blood. Low doses of aspirin are used to thin the blood and can help prevent heart attacks and strokes. Medicines to lower blood pressure are also commonly prescribed and there are many types of these which work in different ways.
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