What are Cardiovascular Diseases (CVD)?

By Patrick Larbi Awuku RD, LD | 25th September 2020

Cardiovascular diseases (CVD) are a set of diseases that affects the heart and the blood vessels. It includes diseases of the heart, vascular diseases of the brain, or diseases of the blood vessel. It is the leading cause of death and disability in the world today claiming over 17.9 million lives every year. Of these deaths, 80% are due to coronary heart diseases (eg heart attack) and cerebrovascular diseases (eg strokes) and mostly affect low- and middle-income countries.

The heart is of the size of your fist and the strongest muscle in your body. It started beating about three weeks after conception. At age 70, the heart will have beaten 2.5 billion times. However, although impressive and strong, the heart can also become vulnerable from habitual risk factors like smoking, eating an unhealthy diet or putting it under stress. Controlling these key risk factors and monitoring your blood pressure regularly may reduce an individual’s risk of CVD. The cardiovascular system can also be weakened from a pre-existing heart condition and other physiological factors, including hypertension or high blood cholesterol. When the heart’s functions become compromised, this is known as cardiovascular disease, a broad term that covers any disorder to the system that has the heart at its centre.

Risk Factors

There are many risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease. Some risk factors are modified and others are non-modifiable. Having a risk factor does not necessarily mean you will develop cardiovascular disease, but the more risk factors you have, the greater the likelihood that you will, unless you take action to modify your risk factors and work to prevent them compromising your heart health.

Modifiable risk factors include:

  • Physical inactivity
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Tobacco use
  • Cholesterol
  • Obesity and being overweight
  • Excess alcohol intake
  • Other potentially modifiable risk factors include air pollution, noise, stress, and infection, though these are not as easy for an individual to control directly.

Non-modifiable risk factors include:

  • Family history
  • Age: simply getting old is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease; risk of stroke doubles every decade after age 55.
  • Gender: Men have greater risk of heart disease than a pre-menopausal woman. But after menopause, a woman’s risk is similar to a man’s. Risk of stroke is similar for men and women.
  • Ethnicity: People with African or Asian ancestry are at higher risks of developing cardiovascular disease than other racial groups.
  • Socioeconomic status: being poor, no matter where in the globe, increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. A chronically stressful life, social isolation, anxiety and depression also increase the risk.
  • Early development in the womb and during childhood helps set the stage for heart health or heart disease. Uncontrolled gestational diabetes can set the stage for children.

Warning signs

Heart attack warning signs

Some heart attacks are sudden and intense, where no one doubts what’s happening. But most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Often people affected aren’t sure what’s wrong and wait too long before getting help. Here are some signs that can mean a heart attack is happening:

  • Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

Heart attacks often manifest themselves differently in women than in men. As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

Stroke warning signs

A stroke is a medical emergency. If any of these symptoms appear, don’t delay – get medical help immediately!

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

If experiencing any of these signs, whether it comes and goes, go to the hospital immediately.


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