Cardiovascular disease symptoms, risk factors and prevention


Understanding cardiovascular disease symptoms, risk factors and prevention can help you or a loved one in need.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in the world and is responsible for one third of all deaths. The deadly combination of heart disease and stroke kills 17 million people every year, particularly those in poor countries. This death rate is projected to climb to a staggering 24 million by 2030. The uptick is based on increasing trends in obesity, poor diets, smoking, and physical inactivity, particularly in the younger population.

Cardiovascular disease is not a normal part of healthy aging. The lifestyle choices you make directly impact the health of your heart and vascular system and whether you develop CVD.

Understanding the components of the cardiovascular system is a good start to understanding the problems that occur when abnormalities arise in different areas. The cardiovascular system consists of the pump (heart), hoses (vessels), fluid (blood), and the nozzle (valves); if any one of them isn’t working properly you can have problems.

Differentiating among the various heart diseases and illnesses

Cardiovascular disease is a broad term to describe a mix of many diseases and illnesses that affect heart health. It’s not only possible but common to have more than one of these illnesses simultaneously, which further increases your chance of dying from heart disease. WE explain the major forms of heart disease in the following sections.

There’s really no cure for heart disease, but prevention and screening are the best tools for delaying the onset or minimizing the damaging effects.

Coronary artery disease (CAD)

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is also known as coronary heart disease or ischemic heart disease, and it kills more than 7 million people in the world each year. CAD results from atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries). In atherosclerosis, plaque deposits build up in the arteries. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances from the blood.

According to the American Heart Association, CAD’s damage is caused by elevated levels of blood cholesterol and triglycerides, high blood pressure, and tobacco smoke.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure is the result of your heart working harder than normal to pump blood out into the arteries. The blood pressure is at the highest when it pumps blood out (systolic pressure) and the lowest in between pumps (diastolic pressure). The higher a person’s blood pressure measures, the greater that person’s risk of heart attack, stroke, heart failure, kidney disease, and eye damage (retinopathy).


A person suffers a stroke when blood flow to part of the brain is blocked or if a blood vessel breaks and you bleed into the brain, causing brain cells to die. Over 15 percent of people who have a stroke die within 30 days. Of the people who survive a stroke, 15 to 30 percent suffer from some type of permanent disability. The major risk factors for stroke are high blood pressure and tobacco use. There are three main types of strokes:

  • Ischemic stroke: This stroke is the most common type accounting for over 80 percent of all strokes. During an ischemic stroke a clot forms, usually caused by atherosclerosis, which blocks a blood vessel that’s supplying blood to various areas of the brain.
  • Hemorrhagic stroke: This type of stroke results from a blood vessel that breaks and bleeds into the brain. It’s usually much more damaging and has a higher mortality rate than ischemic stroke. The cause of this stroke is either high blood pressure or an aneurysm (a weak spot on the artery wall that balloons with blood and may eventually burst from pressure).
  • Transient ischemic attach (TIA): This type of stroke is often referred to as a mini stroke because it only causes a short interruption of blood flow to the brain. The symptoms of a TIA last less than 24 hours and are considered warning signs, because about one-third of people who have a TIA will suffer from a stroke in the future.

Understanding your own risk

Cardiovascular disease is a major problem and is related to many choices you make every day. Some factors are even out of your control (such as being male). L Here are some of the most common risk factors:

  • Smoking: Smoking has been linked to plaque build-up and high blood pressure. Smoking also causes your blood to be thicker, which increases the risk of a stroke. Even if you have smoked for years, stroke is one condition that can still be reduced if you quit.
  • Poor diet: Reducing the intake of saturated fats, trans-fats and cholesterol decreases plaque build-up and risks of ischemic strokes. A diet high in vegetables and fruit can reduce your risks too.
  • Inactive lifestyle: Physical activity is decreasing in all age groups. The lack of movement increases risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and therefore strokes.
  • Obesity: Being overweight is associated with elevated cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of coronary artery disease. Excess fat increases the heart’s work which over time can lead to heart disease.
  • Gender and age: Men have a higher risk of heart attack than women. Even though the difference narrows after women reach menopause, men still have a higher risk. Most of heart disease related to deaths can occur after the age of 65, although the disease likely was present at an earlier age.
  • Heredity: Heart disease does tend to run in families. Children of parents with heart disease are more likely to develop it also. Certain ethnic groups, such as African Americans and Hispanics, tend to have a higher prevalence of cardiovascular disease.

Risk factors starting at younger ages are setting the stage for a surge in cardiovascular disease. Childhood obesity and smoking rates are rising and so are the rates of diabetes and high cholesterol. These two diseases were once thought of as diseases of middle-age, but are now being diagnosed in younger populations. Even some autopsies have found plaque in the aorta and coronary arteries of children that have died in accidents.

Playing your part in prevention, and managing cardiovascular disease

Cardiovascular disease isn’t an inevitable part of aging; there are things you can do to greatly reduce your risk of becoming a heart attack or stroke statistic. If you already have CVD, take immediate steps to reduce the chances of your disease worsening. The key to preventing as well as managing your CVD is modifying your lifestyle choices. Here’s how:

  • Avoid using tobacco products.
  • Maintain healthy cholesterol levels and have your physician check your cholesterol levels at each routine checkup visit.
  • Reduce your blood pressure (BP). Stop in to your doctor for a quick BP check, or take advantage of the free machines at your local pharmacy or grocery store.
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Control your diabetes. If you have diabetes, make sure that you keep your blood glucose under excellent control. Poorly controlled diabetes is a major risk factor for heart disease.
  • Increase your physical activity. You should be getting a minimum of 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week.
  • Figure out how to manage stress. There are many ways to reduce stress and some of them involve activities that are also helping reduce risks, such as exercise!

Recognizing the symptoms of coronary artery disease

You may look right past the first warning signs of coronary artery disease (CAD), and for many people, there are no warning signs at all. Their first sign that something’s wrong is a heart attack. That’s scary! Although not all cases of CAD are preventable—heredity plays a part in who gets it—you can modify or eliminate many risk factors by visiting your doctor regularly and being aware of potential early warning signs. The main symptoms of CAD are as follows:

  • Angina (chest pain): Angina refers to chest pain and/or discomfort, with or without pain in one or both arms or in the left shoulder, neck, jaw, or back.
  • Shortness of breath: This may occur when the coronary arteries become narrower due to the buildup of plaque (atherosclerosis).
  • Irregular heartbeats or palpitations: If your heart starts to skip beats or you feel it beating irregularly.

If a full evaluation by your doctor shows that you have CAD, your doctor may be able to control the disease with medications while monitoring for any changes in symptoms. In some instances you may need invasive tests and procedures to open up blocked arteries prior to medication therapy.

The tricky situation with CAD is deciding when to call your doctor versus calling 911 when you experience symptoms of CAD. Each case is different and your doctor, who knows your case bet, can discuss how you should approach the onset of chest pain or other symptoms. If you’ve established CAD but haven’t discussed a plan with your doctor, any new, changing, or worsening symptoms are reasons to call 911. If you have the onset of CAD symptoms and have never experienced any in the past, you also need to treat those symptoms as a possible heart attack and call 911.

Not all heart attacks look like they do on TV or in the movies. You may have multiple symptoms at the same time that increase in intensity, or just one symptom that doesn’t seem very intense. Here are some symptoms:

  • A feeling of overwhelming exhaustion; unable to do anything
  • A feeling of anxiety along with shortness of breath that doesn’t let up
  • Feeling winded when exerting very little effort, which subsides when you stop
  • Experiencing terrible heartburn, possibly with nausea and vomiting or feeling like you have the flu
  • Feeling of pressure, pain, or discomfort, through the chest or back
  • A feeling of discomfort, numbness, tingling and/or pain in jaw, upper back, shoulders, neck, arms (usually on the left side of your body)
  • Getting the “cold sweats” and pale skin

Right after calling 911 if you think you’re experiencing a heart attack, go to your medicine cabinet for a lifesaver everyone should have on hand—plain aspirin (if you’re not allergic to it!) Chew a 325 milligram tablet of plain aspirin; aspirin helps reduce platelet formation around the ruptured plaque. Platelets can form a larger clot, which further decreases blood flow. Chewing aspirin speeds its absorption—you’ll get over the taste later.

*Agin, B., & Perkins, S. (2008). Healthy aging for dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Pub.

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