• Also Known As:
  • CVD
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What is cardiovascular disease?

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a general term used to describe conditions that can affect the heart (cardio) and/or the body’s system of blood vessels (vascular).

Most cardiovascular diseases are chronic conditions that develop or persist over a long period of time. However, some of the outcomes 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 popular usage of the term CVD is in reference to diseases that are associated with atherosclerosis, the narrowing of arteries due to the build-up of plaque that makes it harder for blood to flow through them.

About Cardiovascular Disease

Risk Factors

Cardiovascular diseases occur more frequently in people who smoke, who have high blood pressure, who have high blood cholesterol (especially elevated low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, LDL-C), who are overweight, who do not exercise, and/or who have diabetes. Therefore, public health initiatives focus on decreasing CVD by encouraging people to:

  • Follow a healthy diet
  • Avoid smoking
  • Limit alcohol drinking
  • Exercise regularly
  • If diagnosed with diabetes, maintain good control of blood glucose

In addition, there are some risk factors that cannot be controlled, including age, gender, and family history:

  • CVD risk increases with age.
  • Men are generally at higher risk of heart disease; however, women’s risk increases to that of men’s after menopause.
  • Having a first-degree relative who had coronary heart disease or a stroke before age 55 for a male relative or before after 65 for a female relative increases the risk.

The American College of Cardiology (ACC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) have developed guidelines for CVD risk assessment. The primary purpose of the recommendations is to better define which important factors are involved in determining CVD risk and to provide ways to reduce risk through treatment and lifestyle modifications. A CVD risk calculator is included in the guidelines to help predict 10-year and lifetime CVD risk levels. The risk calculator is intended for people without heart disease between the ages of 40 and 79. Many factors are considered in the calculation, including age, gender, race, total cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C), blood pressure, presence of diabetes, and smoking habit.

In March 2019, the ACC and AHA released additional guidelines for CVD risk assessment that included an adjusted framework, recommendations for non-traditional risk factors such as the ankle-brachial index (ABI), high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP) level, enhancing the role of coronary artery calcium (CAC) scoring as well as supporting lipid-lowering therapy and preventive medicines.

Use of the guidelines and the risk calculator remains controversial, however, with some experts saying that it overestimates patients’ CVD risk and could lead to many more people being treated with preventive statins than is necessary. Proponents of the calculator’s new formula said that it is still a valuable resource because it is better than previous risk calculators. The guidelines underscore the importance of discussing treatment options with your healthcare practitioner to make an informed decision.


Some of the classifications of CVD include the following. (For additional details on these types of CVD, follow the links to the specific articles, or see the links under Related Content.)

  • Coronary heart disease (CHD) and coronary artery disease (CAD) – 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 ischemic attack (TIA) or “mini stroke”
    • Strokes
  • Peripheral artery disease (PAD) – disease of the blood vessels supplying the arms, legs, and feet that may lead to:
    • Claudication – obstructed blood flow to the arteries, causing leg pain
    • Gangrene – death of tissues in legs due to poor circulation
    • Aneurysms

Other types of disease can also affect the heart and/or blood vessels. These are described in more detail in the Heart Disease and Vasculitis articles and include:

  • Congenital heart disease – resulting from malformation of the heart structure during development (includes some valvular diseases)
  • Rheumatic heart disease or valvular disease – defects in the structure or function of the heart valves; may be either present at birth (congenital) or acquired later in life
  • Cardiomyopathy – weakening of the heart muscle
  • Myocarditis – inflammation or infection of the heart muscle
  • Pericarditis – inflammation of the lining outside the heart
  • Vasculitis – inflammation of blood vessels
  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism – blood clots that develop in the veins (thrombosis) that may break off and travel through the blood to other organs (embolism)
  • Atrial fibrillation – quivering or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure, and other heart-related complications

The World Health Organization estimates that 71.9 million people die of cardiovascular diseases, which is about 31% of all global deaths. Over 80% of deaths from CVD occur in resource-limited countries, where people at risk do not have access to preventive measures and adequate healthcare. As the leading cause of death worldwide, cardiovascular disease is a focus of international interest.

View Sources

Sources Used in Current Review

(2017) Piano, MR. Alcohol’s Effects on the Cardiovascular System. Alcohol Res. 2017;38(2):219–241. Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5513687/. Accessed March 2020.

(March 17, 2019) ACC/AHA Guidance for Preventing Heart Disease, Stroke Released. National Heart Association. Available online at https://newsroom.heart.org/news/accaha-guidance-for-preventing-heart-disease-stroke-released?utm_campaign=sciencenews18-19&utm_source=science-news&utm_medium=phd-link&utm_content=phd03-17-19. Accessed March 2020.

(Nov 15, 2018) Arps, K., et al. New aspects of the risk assessment guidelines: Practical highlights, scientific evidence and future goals. American College of Cardiology. Available online at https://www.acc.org/latest-in-cardiology/articles/2018/11/14/07/10/new-aspects-of-the-risk-assessment-guidelines. Accessed March 2020.

(July 17, 2018) Lin, JS., et al. Nontraditional risk factors in cardiovascular disease risk assessment. Available online at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29998301. Accessed March 2020.

(March 17, 2019) Arnett D., Blumenthal R., Albert M., et al. 2019 ACC/AHA Guideline on the Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: A Report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Clinical Practice Guidelines. Available online at https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/CIR.0000000000000678. Accessed March 2020.

Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD) Resources. American Heart Association. Available online at https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/peripheral-artery-disease/pad-resources. Accessed March 2020.

(October 31, 2016) Why PAD Matters. American Heart Association. Available online at https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/peripheral-artery-disease/why-pad-matters. Accessed March 2020.

Cardiovascular Diseases. World Health Organization. Available online at https://www.who.int/health-topics/cardiovascular-diseases/#tab=tab_1. Accessed March 2020.

Rheumatic heart disease. Heart and Stroke Encyclopedia. American Heart Association. Available online at https://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Encyclopedia/Heart-Encyclopedia_UCM_445084_ContentIndex.jsp?title=rheumatic%20heart%20disease. Accessed March2020.

(March 31, 2016) Symptoms and Diagnosis of Pericarditis. American Heart Association. Available online at https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/pericarditis/symptoms-and-diagnosis-of-pericarditis. Accessed March 2020.

(May 17, 2017) Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs). World Health Organization. Available online at https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/cardiovascular-diseases-(cvds). Accessed March 2020.

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World Health Organization. Cardiovascular diseases fact sheet, Feb 2007 (Online information). Available online at http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs317/en/index.html. Accessed on 8/2/2007.

World Health Organization. Cardiovascular diseases. Available online at http://www.who.int/cardiovascular_diseases/en/. Accessed April 2011.

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World Health Organization. Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) fact sheet. Available online at http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs317/en/. Accessed October 2014.

American Heart Association. What is Cardiovascular Disease? Available online at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Caregiver/Resources/WhatisCardiovascularDisease/What-is-Cardiovascular-Disease_UCM_301852_Article.jsp. Accessed October 2014.

WebMD. Heart and Cardiovascular Diseases. Available online at http://www.webmd.com/heart-disease/guide/diseases-cardiovascular. Accessed October 2014.

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