Understanding Cardiovascular Disease

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: January 2024

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) refers to a group of conditions that affect the heart or blood vessels. These health conditions can lead to serious complications, such as heart attacks and strokes.1-3

The most common types of CVD include:1-3

Who gets cardiovascular disease?

Cardiovascular disease is very common. In the United States, about half of adults have some form of CVD. It is a disease that can affect people of any age, gender, or ethnicity. However certain factors can increase your risk.1-3

What causes cardiovascular disease?

Many different causes and risk factors can increase your risk of CVD. Risk factors for CVD include:1-3

  • Age – CVD risk increases with age.
  • High blood pressure (hypertension) – High blood pressure puts strain on the heart and arteries, making them work harder.
  • High cholesterol – Higher levels of cholesterol lead to plaque buildup in arteries.
  • Type 2 diabetes – People with type 2 diabetes have a higher risk of developing heart disease.
  • Family history – A family history of CVD raises a person’s chances of developing the condition. This can also be associated with early-onset heart disease.
  • Smoking – Tobacco use has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
  • Excess weight or obesity – Having a higher body weight can put more strain on your heart and arteries.
  • Unhealthy lifestyle – Poor diet, lack of exercise, misuse of recreational drugs, and drinking too much alcohol can all contribute to CVD.

These are not all the risk factors of CVD. If you are concerned about your risk level, talk with your doctor.1,3

What are the symptoms of cardiovascular disease?

Symptoms vary depending on the type of cardiovascular disease a person has. Symptoms may include:1

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Swelling in the legs or ankles
  • Numbness in an area of the body

Not everyone presents with these common symptoms. Women and those with diabetes may present differently.1

How is cardiovascular disease diagnosed?

To diagnose CVD, doctors may perform a medical history assessment, physical exam, and various diagnostic tests. The tests they give depend on each person’s situation. Tests might include:1-3

  • Blood tests – Check blood sugar levels, cholesterol, and complete blood count amongst other lab work.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) – Checks the heart's electrical activity.
  • Stress tests – Look at heart function during exercise (can involve a treadmill or medicine). These tests can involve nuclear imaging.
  • Imaging tests – Provide detailed images of the heart and blood vessels. Angiograms, computed tomography (CT) scans, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are imaging tests commonly used to diagnose CVD.

How is cardiovascular disease treated?

The goal of CVD treatment is to manage symptoms, slow down the disease, and reduce any complications that might arise. A combination of treatments is often needed. Treatment plans could include:1-3

  • Lifestyle changes – Eating a heart-healthy diet, getting regular physical activity, not smoking, and finding healthy ways to manage stress may help improve or slow down CVD.
  • Medicine – Certain drugs help control blood pressure and cholesterol, which can help address specific heart conditions. The type of drug you need will depend on the type of CVD you have.
  • Medical procedures – Some medical procedures or surgeries may be necessary if medicine and lifestyle changes are not enough.
  • Rehabilitation – Cardiac rehabilitation programs help people with CVD recover and adopt a lifestyle that is healthy for their heart.

What are the outcomes of cardiovascular disease?

The outcome, or prognosis, of CVD varies from person to person. It depends on the type and severity of the person’s CVD, how effective treatment is, and the lifestyle changes the person makes.1-3

Many people lead fulfilling lives despite a CVD diagnosis. But if it is left untreated, CVD can lead to complications like heart attacks, strokes, or even death. Early detection and prevention is crucial. Talk to your doctor about your risk for CVD.1-3

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Treatment results and side effects can vary from person to person. This treatment information is not meant to replace professional medical advice. Talk to your doctor about what to expect before starting and while taking any treatment.