Although most people think of heart disease and stroke as two different diseases, they’re really part of the same basic problem. That’s why health professionals call this problem cardiovascular disease. If we break this medical term down, the first part, “cardio” means heart, and the second part, “vascular” means blood vessels, or the pipelines which carry the blood from the heart to all the other parts of the body. There are also very important blood vessels which carry blood to the heart, itself, called coronary blood vessels. Since the heart can’t do its job of supplying blood to the body without the blood vessels, and since the blood vessels can’t do their job of carrying nourishment throughout the body unless the heart pumps the blood out, they’re clearly part of the same system. That’s why it’s called the cardiovascular system.
Two of the most important machines in the body are the heart and the brain. They are called vital organs because they are absolutely necessary for normal living. In other words, when the heart or the brain stop working, normal living stops. Heart attacks and heart failure occur when either not enough blood gets through the coronary blood vessels, or one of them breaks or ruptures. Stroke occurs when not enough blood gets through the blood vessels that feed the brain or one of them breaks.
The most common diseases associated with cardiovascular disease, the leading overall cause of death in the U.S. are:
- Coronary Artery Disease
- Hypertension or high blood pressure
We discuss coronary artery disease, hypertension and stroke separately because each of them is a serious killer and disabler of many people. Therefore, in this section we will focus on coronary heart disease. We will discuss the other big heart disease killer and disabler, namely hypertensive heart disease, in the section on hypertension.
Congestive heart failure is a frequent major complication of both coronary heart disease and hypertensive heart disease. It is discussed in this section although it is also a complication of hypertensive heart disease. We also provide information in this section about cholesterol and its relationship to arteriosclerosis because of their close relationships to cardiovascular disease.
- Key Risk Factors for Heart Disease and Stroke
high blood cholesterol/high fat and cholesterol intake
too little exercise or physical activity
smoking – Want to Quit Smoking? View Health Power’s Smoking Tip Sheet
overweight and obesity
Coronary Artery Disease
Coronary artery disease is the most common type of heart disease in the United States, and the leading cause of death in African-Americans/Blacks, Hispanics/Latinos, Asian Pacific Islanders, and Caucasians. In addition, heart disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women.
Coronary artery disease occurs when the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart muscle, become hardened and narrowed. This process occurs when a material called plaque (sounds like plak) builds up on the inner walls of the coronary arteries. The buildup of plaque is known as atherosclerosis (ATH-er-o-skler-O-sis), and is more likely to occur in people with high blood cholesterol levels because cholesterol accumulates in the plaques. As the plaques increase in size, the coronary arteries get narrower on the inside, and less blood flows through them. As a result, less blood flows to the heart muscle. Since blood carries oxygen to the heart muscle, the muscle doesn’t get enough. Major complications of the heart muscle not getting enough oxygen are:
- Angina – Chest pains or discomfort (See Signals of Heart Attacks).
- Heart attack – Occurs when a blood clot develops where there’s a plaque in a coronary artery and suddenly cuts off most or all of the blood supply to that part of the heart muscle.
Over time, coronary heart disease can weaken the heart muscle enough to cause one or both of the following:
- Congestive Heart failure – Coronary heart disease can eventually weaken the heart muscle enough to cause heart failure. When this happens, the heart muscle doesn’t pump blood as well as it should.
- Arrhythmias – Arrhythmias occur when the heart doesn’t beat with its normal rhythm. They can occur when the heart muscle has too little oxygen for too long a period of time.
Heart Attack or Acute Myocardial Infarction (or MI)
Heart attack or myocardial infarct occurs when blood flow to part of the heart is blocked. The blockage is usually caused by either a blood clot, or a plaque (sounds like plak) in a coronary artery. The coronary arteries supply blood and oxygen to the heart muscle. Plaques are collections of fatty and hardened or calcified materials in the wall of an artery associated with a condition called arteriosclerosis or atherosclerosis. When the blood and oxygen supply to the heart is restricted too long without treatment, the result is damage or death (infarction) of heart muscle (myocardium).That’s why the term myocardial infarction is also used for a heart attack.
Common symptoms of heart attack include:
Squeezing chest pain or pressure
Chest pain that radiates to the arm, neck, or shoulder, usually on the left side
Tightness in the chest
Shortness of breath
Feeling of heartburn, nausea and/or vomiting
Women tend to have fewer of the above common symptoms of a heart attack than men. More likely symptoms in women include:
Indigestion or gas-like pain
Nausea or vomiting
Unexplained weakness or fatigue
Pain between the shoulder blades
Repeated chest discomfort
A heart attack is always a medical emergency. Therefore, people who have real chest pain should call 911 because getting treatment at once is very important.
Previous cardiovascular disease, such as angina, a previous heart attack or stroke
Hypertension or high blood pressure
High blood levels of bad cholesterol and low levels of good cholesterol
Inactive physical activity
Congestive heart failure
Health Power Tip Sheets on the Warning signals of a Heart Attack, and the Warning Signals of a Stroke, both of which are based on American Heart Association recommendations, provide additional information on both conditions.