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Cardiovascular Disease Guide

Written by Ada’s Medical Knowledge Team

Updated on

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death globally. 1 In 2019, an estimated 32% of all deaths were estimated to have been caused by cardiovascular disease alone. 1 Of that number, 85% were due to heart attacks or strokes. 1

Whilst serious, cardiovascular disease is preventable and can be treated. And if detected early, treatment success is usually much higher. That’s why it’s important you know the cardiovascular disease risks and what symptoms to look out for.

Let’s take a closer look at cardiovascular disease and what you can do to reduce your risk.

What is cardiovascular disease?

Cardiovascular disease refers to a group of conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels. 1 The type of cardiovascular disease depends on the part of the body affected. We’ll go into more detail on that later.

Many conditions come under the cardiovascular disease banner. Some of the most common include: 2

  • Coronary heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Transient ischemic attack
  • Peripheral artery disease

Cardiovascular diseases are often related to other health conditions. Visit Ada’s cholesterol guide and diabetes guide to find out more about those health issues.

What causes cardiovascular disease?

In most cases, cardiovascular disease begins with a process called atherosclerosis, which is where the arteries harden and become narrow. 3

Atherosclerosis comes about due to a fatty substance called LDL cholesterol building up in the artery walls. These buildups occur when LDL cholesterol levels get too high. 4

Read about LDL cholesterol to learn more.

Over time, these LDL deposits harden and turn into plaques, which reduces the space for blood to flow. 3

Restricted arteries make it harder for oxygen and nutrients to reach the heart and other vital organs. 3

What types of cardiovascular diseases exist?

There are several types of cardiovascular disease. They vary depending on the part of the body affected.

These include: 1, 2, 5, 6

  • Coronary artery disease, which affects the blood vessels that supply the heart. This can lead to a heart attack.
  • Cerebrovascular disease, which affects the blood supply to the brain. When the blood supply to the brain is completely blocked, it is called a stroke. When the blood flow is temporarily disrupted, it is called transient ischemic attack.
  • Peripheral artery disease, which affects the blood supply to the arms and legs.
  • Rheumatic heart disease, which is damage to the heart muscle and valves caused by rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever can occur following infection by a type of bacteria called streptococcus.
  • Congenital heart disease, which is the term for a range of birth defects that affect the normal development and functioning of the heart.

What are cardiovascular disease symptoms?

Cardiovascular disease symptoms can vary depending on the condition and what part of the body is affected.

Heart attack symptoms include: 7

  • Chest pain, tightness, pressure, and discomfort
  • Pain or discomfort in the arms, neck, shoulder, jaw, and back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating and heart palpitations
  • Nausea or vomiting

Stroke symptoms include: 8Pain, weakness, or numbness in your legs and/or armsSudden confusionDifficulty speaking or understanding speech

Transient ischemic attacks have many of the same symptoms as strokes; however, transient ischemic attacks last from a couple of minutes to a number of hours. 9 Symptoms completely resolve within 24-hours. 9

Many people with peripheral artery disease show mild or no symptoms. Those who do have symptoms may experience: 10

  • Aching in the legs after activity
  • Numb or weak legs
  • Sores on your feet and legs that won't heal
  • Leg muscles shrinking

Rheumatic heart disease symptoms can include: 11

  • Fever
  • Painful joints
  • Fatigue
  • Jerky uncontrollable movements called “chorea”
  • Heart murmursRarely rheumatic heart disease can present with nodules under the skin or a skin rash consisting of pink rings with a clear center.

What are the risk factors for cardiovascular disease?

The risk factors for cardiovascular disease can be grouped into “non-modifiable risk factors,” which are ones you cannot control, and “modifiable risk factors,” which are ones you have control over through lifestyle choices. 2 12

The non-modifiable risk factors include: 2 13

  • Family history of cardiovascular disease
  • Age, with risk increasing as you get older
  • Male gender
  • Ethnic background, with people of south Asian, African, and Caribbean descent having an increased risk

The modifiable risk factors include: 2 12 13

  • High blood pressure
  • High fasting blood sugar levels
  • High levels of LDL cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Tobacco use
  • Low physical activity
  • Alcohol use

What can I do to reduce my risk of cardiovascular disease?

The best way to reduce your risk is by maintaining good cardiovascular health.

Here are the best ways to keep your cardiovascular system healthy: 14

  • Eat a balanced diet, low in saturated fats
  • Get active
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Quit smoking and avoid secondhand smoke
  • Check your cholesterol and blood pressure levels, and make sure they aren’t too high
  • Avoid drinking too much alcohol

Wrapping up

With a healthy and active lifestyle, you can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.Just be sure to get your cholesterol and blood pressure levels checked on a regular basis.

If you'd like to learn about what biomarkers are or important cardiovascular disease, check out these articles: