Any condition that affects the heart or blood vessels is considered a cardiovascular disease.
Health problems that affect the structure or function of the heart are classified as heart diseases. These can be congenital (present at birth) or acquired (developed during a person's lifetime). Different types include:
- Myocardial infarction (heart attack)
- Heart failure
- Arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
- Cardiomyopathy (a disease of the heart muscle)
Vascular diseases affect how blood circulates and is distributed in the body. They are the most common type of cardiovascular disease. Different types include:
- High blood pressure
- Cerebrovascular accident (stroke)
- Venous insufficiency (when the veins have trouble pushing blood back up against gravity)
- Venous thrombosis (when a vein is blocked by a clot)
Some cardiovascular disease patients have no symptoms, especially in the early stages. They could experience the following symptoms:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath (especially during exercise)
- Ankle swelling
- Muscle cramps
- Digestive symptoms (nausea, indigestion)
- Palpitations (a stronger and faster heartbeat than normal)
These symptoms can also be due to other conditions and should always be discussed with your health care provider.
Causes and triggers
When they develop over the course of a person's lifetime, cardiovascular diseases are almost always caused by a buildup of cholesterol in the blood vessels. As cholesterol gradually accumulates, the insides of the blood vessels narrow. As a result, the blood has less room to circulate and can't distribute as much oxygen to the body. If a blood vessel becomes completely blocked, the oxygen supply to the muscle or tissue near the blockage is cut off. The muscle or tissue then deteriorates. Depending on the site of the blockage, the consequences can be serious or even fatal.
Other factors may contribute to the onset or progression of cardiovascular disease. Some can be modified, and others cannot.
Modifiable risk factors:
- Physical inactivity
- Unbalanced diet
- Alcohol abuse
- Poor blood pressure management, if applicable
- Poor diabetes management, if applicable
Non-modifiable risk factors:
- Advanced age (risk increases with age)
- Being male
- Family history of cardiovascular disease (under age 55 for men and under 65 for women)
It is important to note that a person can have several cardiovascular diseases at the same time. The more cardiovascular diseases a person has, the higher their risk of complications.
Many medications and medical interventions exist to treat cardiovascular disease. Treatment always depends on the disease and its severity. The goal of these treatments is usually to get the heart working efficiently and the blood flowing properly.
However, the most important component of managing cardiovascular disease is making lifestyle changes. Here are some lifestyle habits that can help improve your health:
- Quit or avoid smoking
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Eat a diet low in saturated fat and high in fruits and vegetables
- Exercise regularly
- Limit your alcohol consumption
- Avoid stress
- Manage your blood pressure, if applicable
- Manage your diabetes, if applicable
Consulting different health care professionals such as nutritionists, kinesiologists, and psychologists can help you take charge of your overall health.
When should I see a health care professional?
Speak with your health care provider if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Persistent headaches
- Shortness of breath
- Unusual heart palpitations
- Pain when walking
- Swelling of the limbs
- Recurring digestive discomfort
- Weakness or persistent fatigue
Seek emergency medical attention (call 911) if you have:
- Stroke symptoms:
- Numbness in the face
- Impaired speech
- Impaired vision
- Loss of balance
- Heart attack symptoms:
- Tightness in the chest
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Symptoms of thrombosis in one of your limbs: