Overview of cardiovascular disease
Cardiovascular disease (also called heart disease) refers to any condition that affects your heart, including the blood vessels, electrical signals that dictate your heart rhythm, the heart muscle, and the valves.
If you have cardiovascular disease, you may experience symptoms. They will depend on the specific condition you have and how advanced it is.
Not everyone with heart disease experiences symptoms. It is also possible to go undiagnosed until you experience chest pain (angina) or have a heart attack.
Common symptoms associated with heart disease include:
- Chest pain or a feeling of tightness in your chest
- Shortness of breath during light activity or at rest
- Fatigue or tiring easily
- Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
- Fainting or near fainting
- Numbness or weakness in your feet, legs, or hands
- Pain in your neck, jaw, throat, upper abdomen, shoulder, or arm
- Feeling as though your heart is racing, fluttering, unusually slow, or beating irregularly
- Having blueish skin in your extremities and lips (also called cyanosis)
- Swelling in the legs
Heart disease (or cardiovascular disease) is a blanket term covering several conditions. Some of these conditions (like congenital disabilities) are present at birth. Others (like coronary artery disease) develop over time due to damage to your heart muscle, the presence of other conditions that put a strain on your heart, or atherosclerosis (the buildup of plaque in your vessels).
The heart is a complex organ that acts as a pump, squeezing to move oxygenated blood throughout your body. Your heart is made up of several chambers connected by valves (which act as “gates” and control the flow of oxygenated blood) and surrounded by muscle.
Heart conditions can affect the flow of blood, the valves, the muscle itself, or the electrical impulses that dictate how often and how quickly the heart beats.
While coronary artery disease (in which the blood vessels supplying blood to the heart become narrowed, stiffened, or blocked) is the most common cause of cardiovascular disease, there are many other potential causes. Some of these causes are:
- Bacteria, viral, or parasitic infections
- Rheumatic fever
- Connective tissue disorders
- Heart defects (congenital disabilities)
- Drug abuse
- Overuse of stimulants (including caffeine)
- Overuse of alcohol
- High blood pressure
Heart disease can be caused by several conditions affecting various parts of the heart and body. Some of the most common include:
- Atherosclerosis (a buildup of plaque in the blood vessels)
- Congenital heart defects (disabilities from birth that affect the heart muscle)
- Myocarditis (infection in the heart)
- Valvular heart disease
- Cardiomyopathy (thickening or enlarging of the heart muscle), either dilated (which may be caused by toxins, previous heart attacks, or other factors), hypertrophic (in which the muscle becomes too thick) or restrictive (in which the muscle becomes stiff or inelastic)
- Arrhythmia (when the heartbeat is irregular)
The likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease depends on a number of factors. Some lifestyle, genetic, and other factors can increase risk.
Some of the most prevalent risk factors include:
- Age (your heart muscle can weaken with age and fatty deposits can build up in blood vessels)
- Sex (men and women experience heart disease, but the condition is more common in men)
- Poor hygiene or poor dental hygiene
- Uncontrolled high blood pressure (over time, high blood pressure or hypertension puts pressure on the heart, resulting in narrowing and hardened arteries)
- High cholesterol
- Excessive consumption of alcohol
- Excessive consumption of caffeine
- Use of recreational drugs
- Stress or anxiety
- Eating a diet high in salt, sugar, or saturated fats
- Physical inactivity
- Genetics (having a family history of heart disease appears to make developing it more likely)
While it isn’t always possible to avoid heart disease, it is possible to reduce your risk and protect your heart by changing elements of your lifestyle and seeking regular medical care:
- Exercising regularly, including cardiovascular exercises such as walking, swimming, hiking, or jogging, as recommended by your doctor.
- Eating a balanced diet.
- Not smoking.
- Maintaining a healthy weight.
- Avoiding excess consumption of alcohol.
- Attending regular physical exam appointments and making sure to manage other conditions like diabetes, as recommended by your doctor.
The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.