What is Cardiovascular Disease?
Cardiovascular disease – also known as heart disease – describes a variety of conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels. Many of these conditions are related to a process called atherosclerosis in which plaque builds up in the walls of the arteries, narrowing them and making it harder for blood to flow through. Risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as symptoms and treatment vary for each individual patient, but prevention is largely related to lifestyle factors and behaviors.
If a blood clot forms in a narrowed artery, it can cut off blood flow completely – leading to a heart attack or stroke. During a heart attack, the part of the heart muscle supplied by a blocked artery begins to die. During an ischemic stroke (the most common type), blood supply to a part of the brain is blocked, and brain cells begin to die. (The other type, a hemorrhagic stroke, occurs when a blood vessel in the brain bursts, most often due to uncontrolled hypertension.)
Types of Cardiovascular Disease
Types of cardiovascular disease include:
- Arrhythmia: a problem with the rate or rhythm of your heartbeat caused by changes in your heart’s normal sequence of electrical impulses.
- Heart failure: a condition in which the heart isn’t pumping blood as well as it should and is failing to meet the body’s need for blood and oxygen.
- Heart valve problems: Stenosis occurs when heart valves don’t open enough to allow blood to flow normally. Regurgitation occurs when heart valves fail to close properly and allow blood to leak through. Mitral valve prolapse means valve leaflets bulge or prolapse back into the upper chamber and may not close properly, allowing a backward flow of blood.
Baptist Health is known for advanced, superior care for patients in the diagnosis, management and treatment of cardiovascular disease. We are an accredited American Association Mission Lifeline Receiving Center, providing best practices in the treatment of heart attacks.
At Baptist Health, you have access to the region’s most comprehensive, multidisciplinary team of specialists and innovative therapies, including many available only through specialized clinical trials. In every way, we work to demonstrate the utmost in excellent care to those who trust us with their health.
Cardiovascular disease symptoms depend on the type and stage of the condition.
Atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease symptoms:
- Chest pain (especially in men)
- Heart palpitations or rapid heartbeat
- Nausea (more common in women)
- Pain in the neck, jaw, throat, upper abdomen or back
- Shortness of breath
- Weakness or dizziness
Heart attack symptoms:
- Discomfort, pressure, heaviness or pain in the chest, arm, or below the breastbone
- Extreme weakness, fatigue or anxiety
- Fullness, indigestion or choking feeling
- Nausea or vomiting
- Pain radiating to the back, jaw, neck or throat
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
Ischemic stroke symptoms:
- Headache (often sudden and severe)
- Paralysis or numbness of face, arm or leg
- Trouble seeing out of one or both eyes
- Trouble speaking and understanding speech
- Trouble with walking (loss of balance, coordination)
- Chest pain or tightness
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Palpitations – a feeling of skipped heartbeats or fluttering
- Pounding in the chest
- Shortness of breath
- Weakness or fatigue
Symptoms of heart valve problems include:
- Discomfort in chest with activity or when going out in cold air
- Shortness of breath or difficulty catching breath with normal daily activities or when lying flat
- Weakness or dizziness
Heart failure symptoms:
- Fatigue and weakness
- Rapid weight gain
- Swelling of legs, ankles, feet or abdomen
To determine if a patient has cardiovascular disease, and to identify the type of cardiovascular disease, we use advanced technology to effectively diagnose, inform treatment and carefully monitor the condition. To start, heart diseases are diagnosed by a physical exam by a provider. A physical exam includes listening to your heart, taking your blood pressure and checking your heart rate.
Diagnostic procedures and technologies can include:
Blood test: Blood tests check the levels of certain fats, cholesterol, sugar and protein in the blood that could indicate heart conditions.
Cardiac catheterization: A long, thin flexible tube is threaded through a blood vessel in the arm or groin and to the heart. Contrast material is injected through the tube and a type of X-ray video is taken to show how the heart functions and to look for heart blockages.
Computed tomographic angiography (CT): This non-invasive test can show the arteries in the abdomen, pelvis and legs. This test is particularly useful in patients with pacemakers or stents.
Chest X-ray: A common imaging test of the lungs, heart and aorta.
Coronary angiography: This procedure often is done with cardiac catheterization. During the procedure, dye that can be seen on an X-ray is injected into the heart chambers or coronary arteries. The dye lets a physician study blood flow through the heart and blood vessels.
Echocardiogram: This ultrasound exam uses soundwaves to take moving pictures of the heart’s chambers and valves.
Electrocardiogram (EKG): This test measures the electrical activity of the heart and can help determine if parts of the heart are enlarged, overworked or damaged. The heart’s electrical currents are detected by 12 to 15 electrodes that are attached to the arms, legs and chest via sticky tape.
Holter monitor: This portable EKG device continuously records the heart’s rhythms and is worn for 24 to 48 hours during normal activity.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): A large magnet, radio waves and a computer are used to produce pictures of the heart and blood vessels.
One of the primary cardiovascular disease causes is when plaque develops in the blood vessels and arteries that lead to the heart. This blockage inhibits important nutrients and oxygen from reaching your heart.
Causes of cardiovascular disease include:
- Heavy alcohol use
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Physical inactivity
- Poor diet (high in fat, salt, sugar and cholesterol)
- Poor hygiene and dental health
- Sleep apnea
Factors that could contribute to the risk of cardiovascular disease include:
Age: Aging increases the risk of developing narrowed, damaged arteries and weak or thickened heart muscle.
Congenital heart condition: Some heart valve problems and arrhythmias are a result of birth defects or inherited syndromes.
Damage to the heart muscle: Heart muscle damage (cardiomyopathy) may stem from diseases, infections, congenital conditions, previous heart attacks or chemotherapy and radiation treatments for cancer.
Family history: If a male relative developed cardiovascular disease before age 55, or a female relative developed it before age 65, a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease is greater.
Gender: Men are affected by heart disease more often than women. However, a woman’s risk rises after menopause.
While you cannot prevent congenital or inherited types of cardiovascular disease, you can take steps to lower your risks for the acquired types and minimize complications:
- Control high blood pressure and cholesterol: Eat a healthy diet, exercise and take medications as prescribed.
- Don’t smoke: If you do smoke, ask your physician about programs and strategies that can help you quit.
- Get regular checkups: If you experience new or changing symptoms or side effects from medications, see your physician.
- Maintain a healthy weight: Eat a low-fat, low-sugar diet high in fruits and vegetables and exercise regularly to keep your weight stable.
- Monitor your blood sugar: Avoid blood sugar spikes by eating a healthy, low-sugar diet. If you have diabetes, test your blood sugar regularly and keep it as stable as possible.
- Reduce your alcohol intake and don’t use drugs: In some cases, you may need to stop drinking entirely. If you can drink, keep your intake low.
- Take your medications as prescribed: If you’ve been prescribed a medication for cardiovascular disease or a causative condition, be sure to take it as prescribed.
Cardiovascular disease treatment depends on the type of condition, the severity of symptoms and complications, and the patient’s overall health. There is a wide range of treatment options for heart disease. The methods used and length of treatment is determined by the type of heart condition, symptom severity, complications, and patient’s overall health. Typically, treatment for cardiovascular disease is focused on lifestyle changes, medications, and surgeries or procedures.
Many patients with mild-to-moderate cardiovascular disease can reduce symptoms and lower their risk of heart attack, stroke and other complications by quitting smoking, limiting alcohol, increasing exercise and eating a healthy, low-fat, low-sodium diet.
Your physician may prescribe medications to treat cardiovascular disease or its causative factors like infection, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes or arrhythmia.
Procedures and Surgery
Both angioplasty and coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) are used as treatments for cardiovascular disease.
An angioplasty is a non-surgical procedure that opens blocked or narrowed arteries. A thin, flexible tube with a balloon or similar device on the end is threaded through a blood vessel to the damaged artery. The balloon is inflated to compress plaque against the artery wall, restoring blood flow.
CABG is a surgical procedure during which a surgeon removes arteries or veins from other areas in your body and uses them to bypass narrowed or blocked coronary arteries.
If you’ve had an angioplasty or CABG procedure or suffered a heart attack, your physician may prescribe cardiac rehabilitation as a method of heart disease treatment. This rehabilitation program includes supervised exercise training to help you regain strength and stamina as well as education, counseling and training to help you understand your heart condition and lower your risk of future complications.
Cardiovascular disease can lead to a variety of serious health problems, including:
- Aneurysm: An aneurysm is a bulge in the wall of an artery that can develop as arteries weaken from atherosclerosis. If an aneurysm bursts, life-threatening internal bleeding can occur.
- Heart attack: If a clot blocks blood flow through a blood vessel narrowed or hardened by cardiovascular disease, the part of the heart muscle supplied by that blocked artery begins to die.
- Heart failure: When the heart is unable to pump oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body efficiently, symptoms affect various body systems.
- Peripheral artery disease: Atherosclerosis can lead to peripheral artery disease, in which extremities — especially the legs — don’t receive adequate blood flow. This causes leg pain and other symptoms.
- Stroke: When arteries supplying the brain are narrowed or blocked, too little blood flow reaches brain tissue and it begins to die within minutes.
Prognosis varies depending on the type and severity of cardiovascular disease. Some people can stay healthy by making lifestyle changes and taking medications as prescribed. Others will need more extensive treatment.
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