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Cardiovascular Disease: Definition, Types and Risk Factors

What is CVD?

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a term used to describe conditions that affect the heart or blood vessels (arteries, veins, and capillaries). CVDs are the main cause of death globally and over four out of five deaths caused by CVD are due to heart attacks and strokes [1]. Cardiovascular disease is typically related with fatty deposits building up in the arteries, known as atherosclerosis, and an increased risk of blood clots. 

There are a number of different types of CVD. Four of the main ones being coronary heart disease, peripheral arterial disease, aortic disease, and strokes and TIAs:

Coronary Heart Disease

Coronary heart disease is a type of CVD that occurs when a build up of fatty substances in the coronary arteries blocks or interrupts your heart’s blood supply. This means that there is an increase in strain on the heart which can lead to angina, heart attacks and heart failure. Angina is chest pain that is caused by the restricted blood flow to the heart muscle, heart attacks are where blood flow to the heart is blocked suddenly, and heart failure is when the heart can no longer pump blood around the body efficiently.

Peripheral Arterial Disease

Peripheral artery disease is a circulatory problem where blockages in the arteries reduce blood flow to the limbs, usually the legs. Symptoms of this condition include hair loss on the legs and feet, numbness or weakness in the legs, dull or cramping leg pain, and persistent ulcers on the feet and legs.

Aortic Disease

Aortic diseases are conditions that affect the aorta. The aorta is the main artery in the body that carries blood away from the heart to the rest of the body. The most common type of aortic disease is an aortic aneurysm. This is where the aorta weakens and begins to bulge outwards, which proposes a risk of it bursting and causing life-threatening bleeding.

Strokes and TIAs

Strokes occur when blood supply to the brain is cut off, which can lead to brain damage and, in some cases, death. TIAs, or transient ischaemic attacks, are referred to as mini-strokes where blood flow to the brain is only temporarily cut off. The acronym FAST was created to recognise the main symptoms of a stroke or TIA, this stands for:

  • Face – drooping on one side of the face, an inability to smile, or a drop in their eye or mouth
  • Arms – an individual may not be able to lift both arms and keep them there due to arm weakness or numbness in one arm
  • Speech – slurred or garbled speech, or an inability to speak
  • Time – dial 999 immediately if you see any of these signs

Modifiable Risk Factors

A singular cause of CVD has not been discovered but numerous modifiable risk factors have been identified, which can increase your risk of getting CVD. The main risk factors for CVD are:

  • High blood pressure – if your blood pressure is too high, it can damage blood vessels
  • Smoking – substances in tobacco can damage and narrow blood vessels
  • High cholesterol – cholesterol is a fatty substance found in the blood, which, if you have a lot of it, can cause blood vessels to narrow and increase the risk of blood clots
  • Diabetes – high blood sugar levels, caused by diabetes, can damage blood vessels, increasing the risk of them narrowing
  • Inactivity – exercise can help to keep your heart healthy and maintain a healthy weight, when used in conjunction with a healthy diet
  • Being overweight or obese – this increases your risk of developing diabetes and high blood pressure, which are both risk factors for CVD
  • Family history of CVD – if you have family history of CVD, your chances of developing it are increased
  • Ethnic background – CVD is more common in people of south Asian, African or Caribbean backgrounds as people from these backgrounds are also more likely to have other risk factors for CVD
  • Age – your risk of developing CVD increases with age
  • Gender – men are more likely to develop CVD than women, at an earlier age
  • Diet – unhealthy diets can lead to high cholesterol and high blood pressure, which are risk factors for CVD
  • Alcohol – excessive alcohol intake can increase blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as contributing to weight gain

Preventing CVD

A healthy lifestyle, including stopping smoking, a balanced diet, regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and cutting down on alcohol, can lower your risk of CVD [2]. Over the next couple of weeks, we will be discussing ways to make changes to your diet and lifestyle to reduce the risk of developing CVD.

If you have CVD or are concerned about your risk of developing CVD and would like dietary support, please contact me to discuss how I can help.

[1] https://www.who.int/health-topics/cardiovascular-diseases#tab=tab_1 

[2] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cardiovascular-disease/ 

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Caroline Hill is a specialist menopause dietitian supporting women making dietary change. Caroline uses her extensive knowledge, skills and expertise of food and nutrition to help women manage their symptoms and weight during menopause. Caroline believes in providing sustainable, individualised, evidence-based advice to women making dietary change.

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