Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the collective name for conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels. It is a leading cause of death in the UK. It is caused by a build-up of plaque in the arteries of the heart, as well as arteries delivering blood and oxygen to the brain, kidneys and eyes. Plaque build-up puts these vessels at increased risk of obstruction within these vessels and clots within the blood.
There are four of the main types of CVD, let’s talk you through them.
Coronary heart disease is where blood flow to the heart muscle is disrupted or blocked, thereby reducing the amount of oxygen to this area. This can lead to conditions like angina, heart attacks and heart failure.
Aortic disease: the aorta is the largest blood vessel in the body and is responsible for carrying oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the rest of the body. Damage to this occurs when the walls of this vessel weaken and bulges occur. These bulges can cause a small or major tear, which ultimately can lead to a catastrophic bleed.
A stroke is where the blood supply to the brain is permanently disrupted, leading to damage or death of the cells of the brain. A transient ischaemic attack, commonly known as a TIA, is caused by similar damage to arteries leading the brain, but the blockage is temporary, and therefore symptoms get better within 24 hours – it acts as a warning shot that someone is at risk of a stroke and should be treated.
Peripheral arterial disease occurs with a blockage in the arteries of the limbs, mainly the legs. This can cause symptoms like leg cramps when walking, which improves with rest, as well as on/off numbness and weakness.
The cause is unknown but there are lots of things that put you at increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
There are certain risk factors that you can’t change, including:
Your family history - if people in your family (siblings or parents) have a history of CVD before the age of 65, then this increases your risk of you developing CVD.
Your ethnicity - it is more common in people of African, Caribbean or south Asian descent.
Your age - the risk of developing CVD increases over the age of 50.
Your gender - men are more likely to develop CVD than women
There are risk factors that you can control and change, including:
Smoking cigarettes, which can lead to damaged and narrowed blood vessels, as well as a raised blood pressure and cholesterol level.
Diabetes mellitus, where high blood sugar levels can lead to narrowed blood vessels. Reduced exercise and obesity increase your risk of developing diabetes, high cholesterol and raised blood pressure, which in turn also impacts the vessels.
You should take advantage of appointments at your GP surgery. If you are over 40 years old, you can book a free NHS health check at your GP surgery, where they will screen for many risk factors for important diseases, including diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and your weight.
If you are found to have any risk factors, you will be invited for regular reviews of risk factors you can work on to reduce the chance of worsening CVD.
There are a number of things you can do yourself, to stay in the best of heart-health, such as eating a healthy balanced diet and exercising regularly. This helps to maintain a healthy weight and reduce your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as reduce your risk of developing diabetes, or improve these conditions if you have been diagnosed.
It is really important if you smoke, to stop smoking as soon as possible, and there are free NHS services available to help you. It is also important to reduce the amount that you drink, keeping it to less than 14 units a week.
If you have multiple risk factors your doctor may consider starting you on medications before significant disease develops. For example, statins help to lower your blood cholesterol levels, aspirin to thin the blood, tablets to reduce blood pressure or tablets for diabetes if you have been diagnosed with prediabetes or diabetes.
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