Overview

Cardiovascular disease is a general term used to describe disorders that can affect your heart (cardio) and/or your body’s system of arteries and veins (vascular).

Most cardiovascular diseases reflect chronic conditions – conditions that develop or persist over a long period of time. However, sometimes the outcome of cardiovascular disease may be acute events such as heart attacks and strokes that occur suddenly when a vessel supplying blood to the heart or brain becomes blocked.

The most common use of the term CVD is to refer to diseases that are associated with atherosclerosis - the build up of fatty deposits and debris in the inner walls of blood vessels. These diseases occur more frequently in people who smoke, who have high blood pressure, who have high blood cholesterol (especially high ‘bad cholesterol’ - LDL), who are overweight, who do not exercise and/or who have diabetes. Public health initiatives focus on decreasing CVD by encouraging people to follow a healthy diet, avoid smoking, control their blood pressure, lower their blood cholesterol, exercise regularly and, if they are diabetic, maintain good control of their blood glucose. Some of the classifications of CVDs are:

  • Coronary artery disease (CAD) causing coronary heart disease (CHD) – disease of the blood vessels supplying the heart that may lead to:
  • Cerebrovascular disease – disease of the blood vessels supplying the brain that may lead to:
    • Transient ischaemic attack (TIA) or ‘mini-stroke’
    • Stroke
  • Peripheral arterial disease – disease of blood vessels supplying the arms and legs that can lead to:
    • Claudication - partially obstructed blood flow in arteries causing pain on exercise
    • Gangrene - death of tissues in legs due to insufficient blood flow
    • Aneurysm (localised bulging or enlargement) in the aorta or other blood vessel.

The World Health Organization estimates that about 17 million people die of CVD each year, representing 30% of all global deaths. Of these 7.6 million are due to coronary heart disease and 5.7 million are due to stroke. The number of deaths is predicted to increase to 23.3 million by 2030. As the leading cause of death world-wide, cardiovascular disease is a focus of international interest.

A number of other diseases affect the heart and other blood vessels, including the veins. The heart can be damaged by problems that occur during its development, termed congenital heart disease. Damage to the valves of the heart may occur from infections, termed endocarditis. The muscle of the heart may be damaged, either slowly (termed cardiomyopathy) or more quickly by inflammation (termed myocarditis).

These and other heart diseases besides atherosclerosis are discussed in the heart disease pages. Blood clots may develop in veins (thrombi) and may detach and go to other organs (termed emboli). Blood vessels may be damaged by inflammation, termed vasculitis.


Last Review Date: December 4, 2013