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Understanding Cardiovascular Disease

Contact the Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention

In Florida, 25 percent of adults aged 65 and older reported in 2011 that they had been told by a healthcare provider that they had a heart attack, coronary heart disease, or a stroke. Nearly twice as many women in the United States die of heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases as from all forms of cancer, including breast cancer. What is cardiovascular disease?
Some risk factors cannot be changed.
There are also risk factors you can control.
How can I protect myself and my family?

What is cardiovascular disease?

Cardiovascular Disease can include:

  • Atherosclerosis
  • Heart Attack
  • Ischemic Stroke
  • Heart failure
  • Arrhythmia
  • 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. If you have a heart attack, you are more likely to survive if you know the signs and symptoms, call 9-1-1 right away, and get to a hospital quickly. You can greatly reduce your risk for CAD through lifestyle changes and, in some cases, medication.

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Some risk factors cannot be changed.

You can't control these risk factors. But knowing what they are can help you understand your overall risk for heart disease.

  • Age: Women usually develop heart disease about 10 to 15 years later than men. This is because until menopause, the ovaries produce estrogen. Estrogen protects women against plaque buildup. But at menopause the ovaries stop making estrogen, and your risk goes up. By age 70, women have about the same risk for heart disease as same-aged men. Menopause isn't the only reason getting older is a risk factor. As people age, arteries get stiffer and thicker. Also, systolic blood pressure (the top number) often goes up.
  • Gender: It is a fact that men have a greater risk of heart attack than women, and they have attacks earlier in life, but each year in the U.S. about 46,000 more women than men have strokes, and about 60 percent of total stroke deaths occur in women.
  • Family History: Women with a father or brother who developed heart disease before age 55 are at higher risk. Women with a mother or sister who developed heart disease before age 65 are also at higher risk. However, young women with a family history may not be aware of this risk. So, they may be less careful about living a heart-healthy lifestyle than men with a family history.
  • Race and Ethnicity: As a group, African Americans are more likely to develop high blood pressure. Research also suggests that racial and ethnic minorities are generally more likely to develop heart disease. The reasons for this greater risk are unclear.

Previous heart attack or stroke or transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) are significant risk factors. A TIA, also called a mini-stroke is caused by temporary disturbance of blood supply to an area of the brain, resulting in a sudden brief decrease in brain function. A TIA is also is a risk factor and predictor of a major stroke.

New research finds that women who have had pre-eclampsia (previously called toxemia) during pregnancy have more than twice the risk of heart disease in later life.

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There are also risk factors you can control.

Many risk factors can be modified, treated or controlled by focusing on lifestyle habits and taking medicine, if prescribed by a health care provider:

  • Unhealthy cholesterol levels: Cholesterol is a type of fat found in your blood and other parts of your body. The body needs small amounts, but too much can cause a problem. The extra amounts can cling to, and clog, your arteries. A blood test can measure your levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol, total cholesterol, and triglycerides.
  • High blood pressure: Blood pressure is the force your blood makes against your artery walls. If this pressure is too high, over time it can damage your artery walls. There are two kinds of pressure. Systolic is the pressure as your heart pumps blood into your arteries. Diastolic is the pressure between beats, when your heart relaxes. To lower your risk of heart disease, your blood pressure should be less than 120 systolic/80 diastolic.
  • Cigarette smoking: Smoking hurts your heart. The more you smoke, the higher your risk. About half of all heart attacks in women are due to smoking! And, if you smoke and also take birth control pills, you are at even higher risk.
  • Diabetes: Diabetes is a disease in which blood glucose (sugar) levels are too high. Type 2 diabetes is the most common type. It usually begins after the age of 40, often in people who are overweight or obese. Uncontrolled diabetes can damage artery walls. This risk is even higher in women than men.
  • Being overweight or obese: The more overweight you are, the higher your risk of heart disease. This is true even if you have no other risk factors. Being overweight also raises your chances of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. To lower your risk, your body mass index (BMI) should be between 18.5 and 24.9. A BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese.Use this calculator to find your BMI.
  • Lack of physical activity: Like being overweight, lack of physical activity raises your heart disease risk even if you have no other risk factors. Being inactive also increases your chances of developing high blood pressure and diabetes. It also raises your risk of being overweight or obese.
  • Drinking alcohol: Depending on how much you drink, alcohol can greatly raise your risk of heart disease, or help lower it. Heavy drinking can cause many heart-related problems. More than three drinks a day can raise blood pressure and triglyceride levels. Too much alcohol can also damage your heart muscle. However, studies have shown that moderate drinkers (no more than 2 drinks per day for men or 1 drink per day for women) are less likely to develop heart disease than people who drink heavily or don't drink at all.
  • Sleep apnea: Has anyone ever told you that you snore? Loud snoring can be a sign of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that can raise your chances of having a heart attack. With obstructive sleep apnea — the most common type — the tissue in the back of the throat relaxes. This blocks airflow to your lungs. This lowers the oxygen level in your blood, which makes your heart work harder. Sleep apnea often leads to high blood pressure.
 If you think you might have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor or health care provider.


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How can I protect myself and my family?

You can greatly reduce your risk for CAD through lifestyle changes and, in some cases, medication.

  • Make an appointment for an annual checkup and keep it.
  • Tone up with regular exercise. Regular exercise helps you prevent or manage high blood pressure; lowers unhealthy cholesterol and raises healthy cholesterol; helps you manage your weight; strengthens your heart and lungs; and promotes better sleep.
  • Know your numbers. Partner with your health care provider to manage your blood pressure, cholesterol, and if you are diabetic, your hemoglobin A1c levels.
  • Shake the habit by limiting processed foods that are high in sodium (salt).
  • Kick butts. Don't smoke!

To learn more about cardiovascular disease and how you can reduce your risk visit the websites listed below:

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