Cardiovascular disease 101: Know your heart and blood vessels

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Cardiovascular disease 101: Understanding heart and blood vessel conditions

Cardiovascular disease describes a range of heart and blood vessel conditions. Here's an overview.

Cardiovascular disease is a broad term used to describe a range of diseases that affect your heart or blood vessels. The various diseases that fall under the umbrella of cardiovascular disease include coronary artery disease, heart attack, heart failure, high blood pressure and stroke.

The term "cardiovascular disease" is often used interchangeably with heart disease because both terms refer to diseases of the heart or arteries. By whatever name you call it — cardiovascular disease or heart disease - it's clear that diseases of the heart and blood vessels are serious problems. Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 worldwide killer of men and women, including in the United States. For example, cardiovascular disease is responsible for 40 percent of all the deaths in the United States, more than all forms of cancer combined.

Brushing up on some basic terminology about cardiovascular disease can help you stay more informed, which pays off whether you're watching the news or meeting with your doctor.

Causes of cardiovascular disease

While cardiovascular disease can refer to many different types of heart or blood vessel problems, it's used most often to describe damage caused to your heart or blood vessels by atherosclerosis. This is a disease that affects your arteries. Arteries are blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients from your heart to the rest of your body. Healthy arteries are flexible, strong and elastic.

Over time, however, too much pressure in your arteries can make the walls thick and stiff — sometimes restricting blood flow to your organs and tissues. This process is called arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, and atherosclerosis is the most common form of this disorder. So if atherosclerosis is the most common cause of cardiovascular disease, you may wonder what ultimately causes atherosclerosis. The culprits are the same risk factors you've heard mentioned in connection with heart disease and cardiovascular disease: An unhealthy diet (lots of saturated fats), lack of exercise, being overweight and smoking. All of these are major risk factors for developing atherosclerosis and, in turn, cardiovascular disease.

Some forms of cardiovascular disease aren't caused by atherosclerosis. Those forms include diseases such as congenital heart disease, heart valve diseases, heart infections or disease of the heart muscle called cardiomyopathy.

Types of cardiovascular disease

Your cardiovascular system consists of your heart and all blood vessels throughout your body. Diseases ranging from aneurysms to valve disease are types of cardiovascular disease. You may be born with some types of cardiovascular disease (congenital) or acquire others later on, usually from a lifetime of unhealthy habits, such as smoking, which can damage your arteries and cause atherosclerosis.

So, now that you know a little bit about cardiovascular disease and its causes, here are some specific terms used to describe the various forms of cardiovascular disease:

Coronary artery disease
This is a common form of cardiovascular disease. Coronary artery diseases are diseases of the arteries that supply the heart muscle with blood. Sometimes known as CAD, coronary artery disease is the leading cause of heart attacks. It generally means that blood flow through the coronary arteries has become obstructed, reducing blood flow to the heart muscle. The most common cause of such obstructions is a condition called atherosclerosis, a largely preventable type of vascular disease. Coronary artery disease and the resulting reduced blood flow to the heart muscle can lead to other heart problems, such as chest pain (angina) and heart attack (myocardial infarction).

Heart attack
A heart attack is an injury to the heart muscle caused by a loss of blood supply. The medical term for heart attack is "myocardial infarction," often abbreviated MI. A heart attack usually occurs when a blood clot blocks the flow of blood through a coronary artery — a blood vessel that feeds blood to a part of the heart muscle. Interrupted blood flow to your heart can damage or destroy a part of the heart muscle.

Cardiomyopathy means diseases of the heart muscle. Some types of cardiomyopathy are genetic, while others occur for reasons that are less well understood. Types of cardiomyopathy include ischemic, which is caused by loss of heart muscle from reduced coronary blood flow; dilated, which means the heart chambers are enlarged; hypertrophic, which means the heart muscle is thickened; and idiopathic, which means the cause is unknown. One of the most common types of cardiomyopathy is idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy — an enlarged heart without a known cause.

Congenital heart disease
Congenital heart disease refers to a form of heart disease that develops before birth (congenital). Congenital heart disease is a broad term and includes a wide range of diseases and conditions. These diseases can affect the formation of the heart muscle or its chambers or valves. They include such conditions as narrowing of a section of the aorta (coarctation) or holes in the heart (atrial or ventricular septal defect). Some congenital heart defects may be apparent at birth, while others may not be detected until later in life.

An aneurysm is a bulge or weakness in a blood vessel (artery or vein) wall. Aneurysms usually get bigger over time. Because of that, they have the potential to rupture and cause life-threatening bleeding. Aneurysms can occur in arteries in any location in your body. The most common sites include the abdominal aorta and the arteries at the base of the brain.

Valvular heart diseases
These are diseases of the heart valves. Four valves within your heart keep blood flowing in the right direction. Valves may be damaged by a variety of conditions leading to narrowing (stenosis), leaking (regurgitation or insufficiency) or improper closing (prolapse). You may be born with valvular disease, or the valves may be damaged by such conditions as rheumatic fever, infections (infectious endocarditis), connective tissue disorders, and certain medications or radiation treatments for cancer.

Pericardial diseases
These are diseases of the sac that encases the heart (pericardium). Pericardial disorders include inflammation (pericarditis), fluid accumulation (pericardial effusion) and stiffness (constrictive pericarditis). These can occur alone or together. The causes of pericardial disease vary, as do the problems they may lead to. For instance, pericarditis can occur after a heart attack and, as a result, lead to pericardial effusion or chest pain.

Heart failure
Heart failure, often called congestive heart failure, is a condition in which the heart can't pump enough blood to meet the needs of your body's organs and tissues. It doesn't mean your heart has failed and can't pump blood at all. With this less effective pumping, vital organs don't get enough blood, causing such signs and symptoms as shortness of breath, fluid retention and fatigue. "Congestive" heart failure is technically reserved for situations in which heart failure has led to fluid buildup in the body. Not all heart failure is congestive, but the terms are often used interchangeably. Heart failure may develop suddenly or over many years. It may occur as a result of other cardiovascular conditions that have damaged or weakened the heart, such as coronary artery disease or cardiomyopathy.

High blood pressure
High blood pressure (hypertension) is the excessive force of blood pumping through your blood vessels. It's perhaps the most common form of cardiovascular disease in the Western world, affecting about one in four Americans. Although potentially life-threatening, it's one of the most preventable and treatable types of cardiovascular disease. High blood pressure also causes many other types of cardiovascular disease, such as stroke and heart failure.

A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted (ischemic stroke) or when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures (hemorrhagic stroke). Both can cause the death of brain cells in the affected areas. Stroke is also considered a neurological disorder because of the many complications it causes. Other forms of cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure, increase your risk of stroke.

Peripheral arterial disease and claudication
You may be more familiar with the term "claudication" — which usually refers to pain in your legs during exercise — than you are the term "peripheral arterial disease." Strictly speaking, claudication is a symptom of peripheral arterial disease. However, claudication is often referred to as a disease itself. Peripheral arterial disease is a disorder in which the arteries supplying blood to your limbs — usually your legs — become narrowed or blocked. When this happens, your legs receive less blood than they need to keep up with demand. Claudication may then develop. When the obstruction is mild, you may have such symptoms as pain in your legs only during strenuous exercise. As the disease progresses and arteries become more obstructed, you may have pain or cramping in your legs even at rest.

Heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias) occur when the electrical impulses in your heart that coordinate your heartbeats don't function properly, causing your heart to beat too fast, too slow or irregularly. Other forms of cardiovascular disease can cause arrhythmias.

Staying informed about cardiovascular disease

You may be surprised how many different diseases fall under the umbrella of cardiovascular disease. The thing to remember is most forms of cardiovascular disease are often related to preventable risk factors. For example, an unhealthy diet, smoking and lack of exercise can all lead to atherosclerosis, which in turn can cause one or more types of cardiovascular disease. Learning how cardiovascular disease is described and what the various terms mean can help you become more informed as you take charge of your health.

Last Updated: 08/09/2007
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