September 12, 2015
2 min read

What is cardiovascular disease?

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Cardiovascular disease is a general term used to describe a range of disorders that affect the heart. Cardiovascular disease, which is also called heart disease, is the leading cause of death among men and women in the United States.

The term cardiovascular disease encompasses diseases of the blood vessels, including coronary artery disease; heart rhythm problems, or arrhythmias; heart infections; and congenital heart defects. Narrowing of the blood vessels is a common form of heart disease.


General symptoms of cardiovascular disease may include chest pain (angina), shortness of breath, or numbness, weakness or coldness in the legs or arms. Symptoms of arrhythmias may include fluttering in the chest; a racing heartbeat, or tachycardia; a slow heartbeat, or bradycardia; or fainting. Heart defects may be marked by pale gray or blue skin, while a thick heart muscle, also known as cardiomyopathy, may lead to breathlessness and bloating, among other symptoms.

The three types of heart infections — pericarditis, myocarditis and endocarditis — have the standard symptoms of cardiovascular disease plus a dry or persistent cough and skin rashes or other unusual spots.

There are four valves in the heart: the aortic, mitral, pulmonary and tricuspid valves. All may become damaged or diseased. Stenosis is when the valves are narrowed; regurgitation or insufficiency is when the valves leak and prolapse is when the valves fail to close properly.

Risk factors

Risk factors for cardiovascular disease include increasing age; male gender; genetic factors; being black, Hawaiian, Mexican American or Native American. Diabetes, high blood pressure, smoking, poor diet or exercise habits, substance abuse, overweight or obesity and chronic kidney disease also may increase heart disease risk.


Heart disease may be diagnosed by coronary angiography/arteriography, computed tomographic angiography, echocardiogram, electrocardiogram, electron-beam computed tomography, exercise stress test, magnetic resonance angiography or nuclear stress test.


Treatments for cardiovascular disease may include medications to control blood pressure, diabetes or cholesterol. Examples of treatments for these conditions include ACE inhibitors, aspirin, beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, diuretics, nitrates and statins. More severe heart disease may be treated by coronary artery bypass surgery, minimally invasive heart surgery or percutaneous coronary intervention.

Complications and lifestyle changes

Complications from cardiovascular disease can range from heart failure and heart attack, to strokes and aneurysms. It could also cause peripheral artery disease and sudden cardiac arrest. Of these, heart failure — when the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs — is the most common.

Heart health can be improved through a series of healthy lifestyle changes. These changes include:

  • stop smoking;
  • control blood pressure;
  • check cholesterol;
  • manage diabetes;
  • exercise, aiming for 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity per day, or as directed by a doctor;
  • eat a healthy diet;
  • maintain a healthy weight;
  • manage stress;
  • seek help for depression; and
  • maintain good hygiene. 

Additional information about cardiovascular disease may be found at these websites: