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Cardiovacular Disease
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Cardiovascular disease is an all-inclusive term used to classify diseases that affect the heart and blood vessels. The term cardiovascular disease includes a long list of conditions–from aneurisms to varicose veins. Sometimes a cardiovascular disease is congenital (with you from birth), but many forms of cardiovascular disease develop as you age as a consequence of poor health.

Cardiovascular disease is often the result of atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the gradual build up of fat and cholesterol on the walls of the arteries. Atherosclerosis can eventually affect the blood's ability to flow through the arteries. The build up on the arteries, called plaque, can rupture, which can lead to a blood clot and block the flow of blood altogether. This will cause a stroke or a heart attack.

Atherosclerosis usually doesn't cause symptoms until it severely narrows or blocks an artery. That's why it is so important to keep a close eye on your blood pressure. Blood pressure is an indicator of atherosclerosis. Severe atherosclerosis can cause a stroke or heart attack, as well as severe damage to other organs throughout your body.

Heart Attack
A heart attack occurs when a blood clot suddenly cuts off most or all blood supply to a part of the heart. When this happens, the cells of the heart do not receive enough oxygen-rich blood to survive, and they die. A heart attack most often occurs as a direct result of atherosclerosis.

Time is essential when experiencing a heart attack. Time that passes without treatment to restore blood flow is more time for cells of the heart to die, and for permanent damage to occur.

One common misconception is that a woman is less likely to experience a heart attack than a man. The truth is that heart attacks don't discriminate. And women need to be able to identify the symptoms of a heart attack immediately, and seek treatment. So, start believing that a heart attack is just as likely to affect you as it is your father, brother or husband in order to be prepared to recognize the symptoms and act in time.

According to The American Heart Association, your body will likely send one or more of the following warning signals if you are experiencing a heart attack:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing or pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes.
  • Pain spreading to the shoulders, neck or arms. The pain may be mild or intense. It may feel like pressure, tightness, burning or heavy weight. It may be located in the chest, upper abdomen, neck, jaw, or inside the arms or shoulders.
  • Chest discomfort with lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath.
  • Anxiety, nervousness or cold, sweaty skin.
  • Paleness or pallor.
  • Increased or irregular heart rate.
  • Feeling of impending doom.

If you experience any of these symptoms, it's important that you get to the hospital immediately and seek medical attention for a heart attack as soon as possible.

Heart Failure
Contrary to popular belief, heart failure does not mean that the heart has completely stopped working. Heart failure is the term used to describe the condition when a heart is not working as efficiently as it should. This can be caused by a number of other heart problems, including atherosclerosis, high blood pressure or a past heart attack. Heart failure affects approximately 2.5 million women–and that number is growing.

Symptoms of heart failure include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Persistent coughing or wheezing
  • Buildup of excess fluid in body tissues, also called edema
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Confusion
  • Increased heart rate

If you experience any of these symptoms, you should take the right steps toward better heart health. You may also ask your physician about certain medical treatments and the effectiveness of certain drugs in treating heart failure.

Heart Valve Disease
There are many different types of heart valve disease, which affect the valves that control the flow of blood between the chambers of the heart. Valve diseases on the right side of the heart–resulting from diseases of the pulmonary and tricuspid valve–are rare and are usually caused by congenital heart problems. But valve diseases on the left side of the heart–resulting from diseases of the aortic and mitral valves–are more common and can lead to an accumulation of fluids in the lungs.

Valve diseases may be a consequence of narrowed valves, due to atherosclerosis or other damage to the heart. Leaking valves are often due to bacterial infections or inflammation, an enlargement of the heart or mitral valve prolapse.

Heart valve disease may often go on for years without any signs or symptoms. And while some cases of heart valve disease are not life threatening, others may become severe and carry health risks. It's important to see your doctor regularly and take all of the precautions you can to maintain a healthy heart. Symptoms of more severe heart valve disease include:

Stroke is a cardiovascular disease because it originates in the circulatory system, even though it ultimately affects the brain. A stroke occurs when an artery ruptures or is blocked, causing a decrease of blood supply to the brain.

Various symptoms may result from this type of blockage, including:

  • Loss of vision
  • Confusion
  • Vertigo
  • Speech problems
  • Numbness
  • Severe headache
  • Asymmetrical drooping in the face

Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA)
TIA occurs when the symptoms of a stroke appear, but subside. TIA is a stroke warning sign and should also be treated as a medical emergency. If you experience any of the above-mentioned symptoms, you need to treat it as a medical emergency and get to a hospital as soon as possible. There is a short window of time surrounding the onset of these symptoms that is best for treating stroke.

Immediately call 911 if you experience any of the following signs of a TIA or stroke:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of your face, arms or legs
  • Sudden numbness in one side of the body
  • Sudden severe headache
  • Sudden loss of coordination or trouble walking
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Sudden trouble seeing
  • Sudden confusion
  • Sudden trouble speaking or understanding

Risks and Prevention
Stroke is highly preventable. Many of the leading risk factors for stroke can be avoided by maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle. Preexistent cardiovascular disease often leads to stroke. If you have been diagnosed with a cardiovascular disease, talk to your provider about the steps you can take to prevent stroke.

Risk factors for stroke include:

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • High cholesterol
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Age (over 55)
  • Family history
  • Previous stroke
  • Diet high in salt

Many studies have shown a higher incidence of stroke in African-American women than in women of other races. More studies are needed to determine a cause for this correlation. This risk for stroke is significantly increased if you smoke while taking birth control, especially after age 35.

There are many, many more variations of heart disease. Many are preventable through maintaining a heart-healthy lifestyle. Some are not preventable. Visit our Diseases and Conditions pages to learn more about individual diseases.

Click below to read about related topics.

A Healthy Heart
Cardiovascular Disease
Understanding the Risks
Interpreting the Numbers
Steps You Can Take Today
On the Road to a Healthy Heart