Understanding Cardiovascular Disease
What is cardiovascular disease?
Cardiovascular Disease can include:
- Heart Attack
- Ischemic Stroke
- Heart failure
- Heart Valve Problems
In the United States, the most common type of cardiovascular disease is coronary artery disease (CAD), which can lead to heart attack. CAD is a narrowing of the small blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. CAD is also called coronary heart disease; arteriosclerotic heart disease; CHD.
Atherosclerosis is the term for the process of fatty substances, cholesterol, cellular waste products, calcium and fibrin (a clotting material in the blood) building up in the inner lining of an artery. The buildup that results is called plaque.
These plaques can burst causing a blood clot leading to heart attack or stroke. Atherosclerosis develops slowly and silently, over decades. It is often not diagnosed until it causes a heart attack because there are usually no symptoms until an artery is so clogged that the blood supply to the organs and tissues is affected.
Symptoms will depend on the location of the blockage.
- In the heart: The symptoms may be similar to those of a heart attack (chest pain).
- In the arteries leading to the brain (carotid arteries): People might have stroke symptoms like sudden numbness or weakness in the arms or legs, difficulty speaking or slurred speech, or drooping facial muscles.
- In the peripheral arteries (usually the legs): The most common symptom is weakness, burning, and pain in the legs when walking, that can be relieved by rest. Another symptom of peripheral artery disease is intermittent claudication. Claudication is limping or impaired gait when walking or recurrent cramping.
Coronary artery disease can cause a heart attack or stroke. Stroke can lead to severe brain damage and disability, or even death. A stroke happens when the blood supply to the brain is reduced, such as when a blood vessel to the brain bursts or is clogged by a blood clot. This prevents the brain from getting the blood and oxygen it needs. Without oxygen, the nerves in the brain begin to die within minutes. The type of disability caused by a stroke depends on the extent of brain damage and the part of the brain that is damaged. The more time that passes without treatment, the greater the damage to the brain.
You can greatly reduce your risk for CAD through lifestyle changes and, in some cases, medication.