Cardiovascular disease

From Academic Kids

Cardiovascular disease refers to the class of diseases that involve the heart and/or blood vessels (arteries and veins). While the term technically refers to any disease that affects the cardiovascular system, it is usually used to refer to those related to atherosclerosis (arterial disease). These conditions have similar causes, mechanisms, and treatments.

Over 50 million Americans have cardiovascular problems, and most other Western countries face high and increasing rates of cardiovascular disease. It is the number 1 cause of death and disability in the United States and most European countries. By the time that heart problems are detected, the underlying cause (atherosclerosis) is usually quite advanced, having progressed for decades. There is therefore increased emphasis on preventing atherosclerosis by modifying risk factors, such as healthy eating, exercise and avoidance of smoking.



Cardiovascular disease usually occurs as a result of arterial damage. The symptoms and treatments depend on which set (or sets) of arteries are affected.

In coronary heart disease, atherosclerotic plaques (inflamed fatty depositss in the blood vessel wall) obstruct the coronary arteries (blood vessels supplying the heart). Narrowing of arteries is called arterial stenosis. When the blockages become severe enough, the blood flow to the heart is restricted (cardiac ischemia), especially during increased demand (i.e. during exertion or emotion). This results in angina pectoris. The acute stage of coronary heart disease occurs when one of the plaques ruptures, forming a thrombus (blood clot) that acute occludes the whole artery. The portion of the heart muscle supplied by that artery dies; this is known as a myocardial infarction (or a heart attack in lay parlance). This may result in the death of the patient if the affected area is large enough. If the patient survives, congestive heart failure may result.

Similarly, inflammation and blood clots may obstruct the cerebral arteries (those supplying the brain). As the disease progresses, an artery may be transiently blocked, causing cerebral ischemia. This results in a transient ischemic attack (TIA), called a mini-stroke in lay parlance. If the obstruction is severe, a cerebrovascular accident, or stroke may result, due to the death of brain tissue supplied by the artery.

In peripheral artery disease, obstruction occurs in the arteries of the arms or legs. This results initially in pain, during temporary obstruction, and finally in tissue death and gangrene if not treated.

There are many specific illnesses that may occur in association with these and other cardiovascular disease. In addition to the ones mentioned above, these include hypertension (high blood pressure), arterial aneurysms (arterial enlargement and weakening), cardiomegaly (abnormal enlargement of the heart), tachycardia/bradycardia/arrhythmia (fast/slow/irregular heart rates), cardiac arrest (heart stoppage), cardiomyopathy (heart muscle weakness), heart valve regurgitation (leakage), and heart valve stenosis (narrowing).

Risk factors

There are many risk factors which predispose to various forms of cardiovascular disease. These include the following:

Although men have a higher rate of cardiovascular disease than women, it is also the number one health problem for women in industrialized countries. After menopause, the risk for women approaches that of men. Hormone replacement therapy alleviates a number of post-menopausal problems, but appears to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.


Attempts to prevent cardiovascular disease take the form of modifying risk factors. Some, such as gender, age, and family history, cannot be modified. Smoking cessation (or abstinence) is one of the most effective and easily modifiable changes. Also important is a low-fat, low-calorie diet, which helps one to maintain a healthy body mass index (BMI) and preventing obesity. Regular cardiovascular exercise (aerobic exercise) complements the healthful eating habits. Sometimes, the combination of diet and exercise will improve lipoprotein (cholesterol) levels; if not, a physician may prescribe "cholesterol-lowering" drugs, such as the statins. These medications have additional protective benefits aside from their lipoprotein profile improvement. Aspirin may also be prescribed, as it has been shown to decrease the clot formation that may lead to myocardial infarctions and strokes; it is routinely prescribed for patients with one or more cardiovascular risk factors.


Treatment of cardiovascular disease depends on the specific form of the disease in each patient, but effective treatment always includes preventetive lifestyle changes discussed above. Medications, such as blood pressure reducing medications, aspirin and other treatments may be involved. In some circumstances, surgery or angioplasty may be warranted to reopen, repair, or replace damaged blood vessels.


The causes, prevention, and treatment of all forms of cardiovascular disease are active fields of biomedical research, with hundreds of scientific studies being published on a weekly basis.

A fairly recent emphasis is on the link between low-grade inflammation that hallmarks atherosclerosis and its possible interventions. C-reactive protein (CRP) is an inflammatory marker that may be present in increased levels in the blood in patients at risk for cardiovascular disease. Its exact role in predicting disease is the subject of debate.

Some areas currently being researched include possible links between infection with Chlamydia pneumoniae and coronary artery disease. The Chlamydia link has become less plausible with the absence of improvement after antibiotic use (Andraws et al 2005).



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