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You may hear the term “cardiovascular disease” used interchangeably with “heart disease” or any of several other terms to describe problems with your heart or blood vessels. But what is cardiovascular disease (CVD) exactly, and why does it seem to be applied so broadly to conditions related to circulation?
Coronary artery disease (CAD), peripheral artery disease (PAD), and carotid artery disease are among the conditions that fall under the heading of cardiovascular disease. What they all share is atherosclerosis—the buildup of cholesterol plaque in the arteries. Atherosclerosis can restrict blood flow by narrowing the arteries; it also can make the arteries less flexible. Plaque can also rupture, leading to the formation of a blood clot and the complete blockage of blood flow in the affected blood vessel.
Arrhythmias and valve disease, on the other hand, are heart disease, but are not considered cardiovascular disease.
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Over the course of your lifetime, plaque builds up in various arteries throughout your body. Plaque is made up of cholesterol, fat, calcium, and other substances found in the blood. Plaque may never be enough to affect your circulation, but for some people plaque accumulation can reduce blood flow.
In the coronary arteries—the arteries that supply blood to your heart muscle—restricted blood flow can cause chest pain. This is called angina. Blockage in your coronary arteries is CAD. In your peripheral arteries—those in your arms, legs, hands, and feet—blockage is PAD. A major symptom of PAD is leg pain when walking that subsides at rest. Blockage in the arteries that carry blood to your brain is called carotid artery disease, a major risk factor for stroke. And blockage in your kidney’s arteries is called renal artery stenosis.
What Is Cardiovascular Disease, and How Is It Diagnosed?
Reviewing your symptoms and your medical history will help your doctor determine what is cardiovascular disease and what might be another cause of your symptoms. But there are other tests and screenings that are necessary to make a final diagnosis.
For example, your doctor will listen to your arteries with a stethoscope. A bruit is a whooshing sound that indicates poor blood flow, possibly caused by plaque buildup. Your pulse will be checked at various points, such as the leg or foot, to see if it’s weak. This could also indicate blockage.
Screenings such as an echocardiogram can help detect blood flow problems in the heart. This test may be combined with stress testing, in which you walk briskly on a treadmill or ride a stationary bicycle to get your heart pumping harder. Seeing how your heart responds to exertion can be very helpful in diagnosing CVD. A computed tomography (CT) scan can reveal blockage in your large arteries. Blood tests that reveal levels of cholesterol and other markers can also help gauge your risk of atherosclerosis.
Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease
The buildup of cholesterol plaque isn’t the only problem that can affect arterial health. Smoking, for example, can damage your endothelium—the thin, inner lining of your arteries. Diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure can also take a toll on the health of your artery walls. A family history of cardiovascular disease also raises your risk of developing the same condition.
Many people mistakenly think that the link between family history and cardiovascular disease includes anyone in their family at any age. But family history is considered to be having a close male relative who was age 55 or younger or a close female relative who was 65 or younger when he or she experienced CVD, heart attack, coronary artery bypass grafting, stenting, or stroke.
Another misconception about CVD is that exercise helps only the younger patient. Quitting smoking, getting regular exercise (start with a walking program if you’ve been sedentary), and taking certain medications can dramatically reduce your CVD risk.
This article was originally published in 2017. It is regularly updated.