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Cardiovascular Disease

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Also known as: CVD

What is cardiovascular disease?

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

Most cardiovascular diseases reflect chronic conditions – 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. These diseases occur more frequently in people who smoke, who have high blood pressure, who have high blood cholesterol (especially high 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
  • Exercise regularly
  • If diabetic, 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.

In November 2013, the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association released new guidelines for CVD risk assessment. The primary purposes of the recommendations were to better define what important factors are involved in determining CVD risk and to provide ways to reduce risk through treatment and lifestyle modifications. For example, included in one part of the recommendations is a new CV risk calculator, a downloadable companion tool that helps to predict 10-year and lifetime CVD risk levels. It 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. Some experts have criticized the calculator's accuracy, however, 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 say that it is still a valuable resource because it is better than previous risk calculators. The guidelines underscore the importance of discussing options and using judgment for both health practitioners and patients when making treatment decisions.

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