Find out the leading causes of Cardiovascular Disease, the symptoms to look out for and what you can do to prevent it.
Cardiovascular disease, is an umbrella term that covers diseases of both the heart (cardio) and blood vessels (vascular) in the body. These include heart disease, along with stroke and blood vessel disease. It’s the leading cause of death in Australia — there are currently over 1 million Australians living with heart disease, stroke or vascular conditions.
The term ‘heart disease’ is often used interchangeably with the term ‘cardiovascular disease’. Cardiovascular disease generally refers to conditions that involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack, chest pain (angina) or stroke. Heart disease is a category of cardiovascular disease and refers to a variety of conditions that affect the heart’s structure and function.
All heart diseases are cardiovascular diseases, but not all cardiovascular diseases are heart disease.
What are the most common types of cardiovascular disease?
Coronary heart disease
Coronary heart disease (CHD) or coronary artery disease occurs when the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle is blocked or reduced. This is caused when a coronary artery clogs and narrows because of a build up of plaque (a collection of fat, cholesterol and other materials). When plaque builds up inside artery walls, it can cause the arteries to narrow and stiffen, which in turn reduces the blood flow and vital oxygen to your heart muscle. This puts an increased strain on the heart, and can lead to:
- angina — chest pain that happens because there isn't enough blood going to part of your heart
- heart attacks – where the blood flow to the heart muscle is suddenly blocked
- heart failure – when the heart is unable to pump blood around the body properly
A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of your brain is cut off. When the arteries to your brain are narrowed or blocked, it restricts the amount of blood that reaches your brain. This prevents brain tissue from getting vital oxygen and nutrients.
A stroke is a medical emergency — brain tissue begins to die within just a few minutes of a stroke. If not treated immediately, it can cause brain damage and possibly death. Signs to look out for include:
- Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg (especially on one side of the body).
- Sudden confusion or trouble speaking or understanding speech.
- Sudden vision problems in one or both eyes.
- Sudden difficulty walking or dizziness, loss of balance or problems with coordination.
- Severe headache with no known cause.
Peripheral arterial disease
Peripheral vascular disease is the reduced circulation of blood to a body part other than the brain or heart. It’s caused when there’s a narrowed or blocked blood vessel.
The main cause is atherosclerosis — the build-up of fatty deposits that narrow a blood vessel, usually an artery. The narrowed blood vessel reduces the circulation of blood to the associated body part, which is often in 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/pins and needles or weakness in the legs
- persistent ulcers (open sores) on the feet and legs that won’t heal (vascular ulcers)
- blue or purple tinge to the skin
A person with peripheral vascular disease is up to six times more likely to have a heart attack or stroke.
The heart has its own electrical system that relies on electrical impulses to make your heart beat to pump blood to your entire body. If you are diagnosed with arrhythmia, it means you have a fault in your heart’s electrical system that can affect your heart’s pumping rhythm. Either your heart muscle beats too fast or it beats too slow, which results in an irregular heartbeat.
Most heart arrhythmias are not life-threatening, but they can cause complications, and can be life-threatening if not monitored properly. In severe cases they can lead to stroke, sudden death and heart failure.
Heart failure, also known as congestive heart failure, occurs when the heart muscle doesn't pump blood as well as it should. When this happens, blood often backs up and fluid can build up in the lungs, causing shortness of breath.
It doesn’t mean that the heart has stopped beating completely; the heart continues to pump blood, but not as effectively as it needs to for the body to continue to function. The fatigue and shortness of breath that can result from untreated heart failure can often interfere with everyday activities like walking or climbing stairs.
There are certain heart conditions, such as narrowed arteries in the heart (coronary artery disease) or high blood pressure, that gradually leave the heart too weak or stiff to fill and pump blood properly.
The major causes of heart failure include coronary heart disease and heart attack, high blood pressure, damage to the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy), heart valve problems and abnormal heart rhythms. Of these, coronary heart disease and heart attack are the most common causes.
Symptoms to look out for include:
- new or worsening shortness of breath (particularly during physical activity or waking you up at night)
- difficulty lying flat at night
- fainting or passing out (syncope)
- weight gain (more than 2kg per week)
- muscular fatigue, tiredness
- swelling of ankles or legs
- swelling of abdomen
- heart palpitations (heart pounding or beating too fast)
- chest pain or discomfort in parts of the upper body
- unexplained coughing and wheezing
- loss of appetite
A heart attack occurs when the flow of blood to the heart becomes blocked and cuts off its oxygen supply. In order for your heart to work properly it needs a continuous supply of oxygen-rich blood. Normally it gets this from blood vessels, also known as coronary arteries, but if it becomes suddenly blocked, oxygen can’t get to your heart muscle — which causes a heart attack.
A heart attack is a medical emergency: without oxygen, the muscle begins to die and your heart can become permanently damaged.
If you experience any of the symptoms below, you should ring triple zero immediately (000):
- chest pain (angina) — pressure or tightness in the chest and arms that may spread to the jaw, neck or back
- suddenly feeling dizzy, faint, light-headed or anxious
- nausea or vomiting
- indigestion or heartburn
- sweating, or a cold sweat
- shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Congenital heart disease
Congenital heart disease is a birth defect, occurring when a baby is born with a heart that hasn’t formed properly. Congenital heart disease is the most common birth defect in Australia and affects about 1 in 100 babies.
There are various different types of congenital heart disease that can range from simple to complex. Some are uncomplicated and don’t require treatment, while other forms can be extremely serious and require will surgical procedures over the duration of several years.
What causes cardiovascular disease?
The exact cause of cardiovascular isn’t known — there isn’t one single thing that causes heart disease and stroke, but there are several risk factors that contribute to it.
Risk factors include:
- high blood pressure, or hypertension
- smoking — the harmful substances in tobacco can damage and narrow your blood vessels
- high cholesterol
- being obese or overweight
- eating unhealthily
- not exercising
- family history of CVD
- your gender — typically middle aged men have a higher risk of developing CVD than women and the risk rises as they get older. Women tend to develop the condition much later, this could be due to hormonal changes due to the menopause.
How do you reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease?
While some risk factors are completely out of you control, there are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk of developing CVD later in life. These include:
- controlling your blood pressure
- keeping your cholesterol under control
- maintaining a healthy weight
- eating a healthy, balanced diet – limit saturated fats, foods high in sodium, and added sugars, and instead eat plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains
- exercise regularly
- limit alcohol intake — too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure, and it also add extra unwanted calories
- don’t smoke
- manage stress
- manage diabetes
- get enough sleep
Loved our advice on cardiovascular disease? We've got plenty more health and beauty advice on our Health & Wellness Edit, guaranteed to give your body a well-deserved boost. Is your red, flushed skin actually rosacea? Introducing the new prescription vape that could help you quit smoking for good.