What is CVD?
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a term used to describe a number of conditions that can affect the heart and blood vessels. These include:
- coronary heart disease - heart attack and angina (heart pain);
- cerebrovascular disease, including a stroke;
- high blood pressure;
- blood clotting and other heart or blood vessel diseases.
How prevalent is CVD and what are the risks of developing it?
The most common cause of CVD is the gradual clogging of blood vessels by fatty or fibrous material. Fatty material gradually builds up on the blood vessel walls, narrowing the arteries. This eventually impedes vital oxygen from reaching the cells. As the deposits build up, the arteries become less elastic. This condition is often referred to as hardening of the arteries – ‘atherosclerosis’. Any artery in the body can be affected. However, the arteries to the heart, brain, or kidneys, or those to the eyes and legs are most commonly affected.
CVD is the number one killer in Australia. Every 10 minutes someone dies as a result of cardiovascular disease.
Some things that increase the risk of CVD are impossible or difficult to control. These include:
- family history - whether immediate family members (parents or siblings) have had CVD.
- Age - older individuals generally have a greater risk of developing CVD.
- Sex - men are at greater risk than women until women reach menopause. Women's risk then becomes the same as for men.
- Diabetes - having diabetes inherently increases the risk of developing CVD.
What are the symptoms of CVD and when should medical attention be sought?
Heart attack warning signs can vary. The symptoms of a heart attack usually last for at least 10 minutes. One or more of the following symptoms may be experienced:
Pain in the chest
A heart attack usually causes discomfort or pain in the centre of the chest. The pain may come on suddenly or start slowly, developing over minutes. It may feel like tightness, fullness, pressure, squeezing or heaviness. It has been described as: 'like a steel band tightening around my chest', 'like an elephant sitting on my chest', or 'like a red hot poker in the centre of my chest'. The pain may be severe, moderate, or even mild.
The chest discomfort may spread to the neck and throat, jaw, shoulders, back, either or both arms, and even into the wrists and hands.
Discomfort in the upper body
Some people do not get any chest pain but just feel discomfort in parts of their upper body. They may have a choking feeling in their throat. Their arms may feel 'heavy' or 'useless'.
As well as pain or discomfort, there may be:
- difficulty breathing.
- some cold sweating.
- feelings of nausea (or possibly vomiting).
- feelings of dizziness or light-headedness.
What can be done to reduce the risk of developing CVD?
While some of the risk factors listed above are impossible to control, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the probability of developing CVD. Namely:
- Avoiding tobacco smoke. Smoking can double the risk of heart attack or stroke.
- Reducing concentrations of blood fats such as cholesterol by eating a diet low in saturated fat.
- Keeping blood pressure under control. If blood pressure tablets have been prescribed, it is vital to take them as directed by the prescribing doctor. Monitoring changes in blood pressure, at least once every two years, is also important.
- Staying within the healthy weight range; having excess weight is one of the most reliable predictors of CVD.
- Eating plenty of cereals, fruit, fish, and vegetables.
- Maintaining regular physical activity. At least 30 minutes on most days of the week. This 30 minutes can be accumulated in shorter sessions of at least 10 minutes at a time. Generally, light aerobic exercise (i.e. exercise that causes a little panting) is more effective at keeping the heart strong.
- Limiting alcohol intake. Ideally, no more than two glasses a day should be ingested.
- Having regular check-ups, preferably with the same GP, to catch any contributing issues early.
What are the consequences of leaving CVD untreated? (tangible and intangible)
If heart disease is not treated, it can cause severe angina, heart failure, or shortness of breath from even mild activities. The risk of death is increased. Most physicians are now very familiar with treating heart disease, so it rarely goes untreated.
What are the different treatments for CVD?
Treatment will depend on the type of CVD determined. Any GP can develop a treatment plan with their patient.
Treatment for heart disease includes meal planning to ensure a heart-healthy diet and physical activity. In addition, regular medications may be required to treat heart damage or to lower blood glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol. A daily low dose of aspirin may also be suggested. In some cases, surgery or other medical procedures may be recommended.