Cardiovascular disease (CVD)

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a general term for conditions affecting the heart or blood vessels.

It’s usually associated with a build-up of fatty deposits inside the arteries – known as atherosclerosis – and an increased risk of blood clots. It can also be associated with damage to arteries in organs such as the brain, heart, kidneys and eyes.

CVD is one of the main causes of death and disability in the UK, but it can often largely be prevented with a healthy lifestyle.

Types of Cardiovascular disease CVD

There are many different types of CVD. Four of the main types are described below.

Coronary heart disease

Coronary heart disease occurs when the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle is blocked or reduced.

This puts an increased strain on the heart, and can lead to:

  • angina– chest pain caused by restricted blood flow to the heart muscle
  • heart attacks – where the blood flow to the heart muscle is suddenly blocked
  • heart failure – where the heart is unable to pump blood around the body properly

Strokes and TIAs

A stroke is where the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off, which can cause brain damage and possibly death.

A transient ischaemic attack (also called a TIA or “mini-stroke”) is similar, but the blood flow to the brain is only temporarily disrupted.

The symptoms of a stroke or TIA can be remembered with the word FAST, which stands for:

  • Face – the face may have drooped on one side, the person may be unable to smile, or their mouth or eye may have dropped.
  • Arms – the person may not be able to lift both arms and keep them there because of arm weakness or numbness in one arm.
  • Speech – their speech may be slurred or garbled, or they may not be able to talk at all.
  • Time – it’s time to dial 999 immediately if you see any of these signs or symptoms.

Peripheral arterial disease

Peripheral arterial disease occurs when there’s a blockage in the arteries to the limbs – usually the legs.

This can cause:

  • dull or cramping leg pain, which is worse when walking and gets better with rest
  • hair loss on the legs and feet
  • numbness or weakness in the legs
  • persistent ulcers (open sores) on the feet and legs

Aortic disease

Aortic diseases are a group of conditions affecting the aorta. This is the largest blood vessel in the body, which carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body.

One of most common aortic diseases is an aortic aneurysm, where the aorta becomes weakened and bulges outwards. This doesn’t usually have any symptoms, but there’s a chance it could burst and cause life-threatening bleeding.

Causes of CVD

The exact cause of CVD isn’t clear, but there are lots of things that can increase your risk of getting it. These are called “risk factors”.

The more risk factors you have, the greater your chances of developing CVD.

The main risk factors for Cardiovascular disease CVD are outlined below.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure (hypertension) is one of the most important risk factors for CVD. If your blood pressure is too high, it can damage your blood vessels.

Smoking

Smoking and other tobacco use is also a significant risk factor for CVD. The harmful substances in tobacco can damage and narrow your blood vessels.

High cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in the blood. If you have high cholesterol, it can cause your blood vessels to narrow and increase your risk of developing a blood clot.

Diabetes

Diabetes is a lifelong condition that causes your blood sugar level to become too high. High blood sugar levels can damage the blood vessels, making them more likely to become narrowed.

Many people with type 2 diabetes are also overweight or obese, which is also a risk factor for CVD.

Other risk factors

Other factors that affect your risk of developing CVD include:

  • age – CVD is most common in people over 50 and your risk of developing it increases as you get older
  • gender – men are more likely to develop CVD at an earlier age than women
  • diet – an unhealthy diet can lead to high cholesterol and high blood pressure
  • alcohol – excessive alcohol consumption can also increase your cholesterol and blood pressure levels, and contribute to weight gain

Preventing Cardiovascular disease CVD

A healthy lifestyle can lower your risk of CVD. If you already have CVD, staying as healthy as possible can reduce the chances of it getting worse.

Ways you can reduce your CVD risk are outlined below.

Stop smoking

Have a balanced diet

A healthy, balanced diet is recommended for a healthy heart.

A balanced diet includes:

  • low levels of saturated fat (found in foods such as fatty cuts of meat, lard, cream, cakes and biscuits) – try to include healthier sources of fat, such as oily fish, nuts and seeds and olive oil
  • low levels of sugar
  • plenty of fibre and wholegrain foods
  • plenty of fruit and vegetables – eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day

Exercise regularly

Adults are advised to do at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week, such as cycling or brisk walking.

If you find it difficult to do this, start at a level you feel comfortable with and gradually increase the duration and intensity of your activity as your fitness improves.

Visit your GP for a health check if you haven’t exercised before, or if you’re returning to exercise after a long break.

Maintain a healthy weight

If you’re overweight or obese, a combination of regular exercise and a healthy diet can help you lose weight. Aim to get your BMI below 25.

If you’re struggling to lose weight, your GP or practice nurse can help you come up with a weight loss plan and recommend services in your area.

Cut down on alcohol

If you drink alcohol, try not to exceed the recommended limit of 14 alcohol units a week for men and women. If you do drink this much, you should aim to spread your drinking over three days or more.

A unit of alcohol is roughly equivalent to half a pint of normal-strength lager or a single measure (25ml) of spirits. A small glass of wine (125ml) is about 1.5 units.

Medication

If you have a particularly high risk of developing CVD, your GP may recommend taking medication to reduce your risk.

Medications that may be recommended include statins to lower blood cholesterol levels, low-dose aspirin to prevent blood clots and tablets to reduce blood pressure.

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