What Everyone Should Know About Their Cardiovascular Health 

Cardiovascular disease affects more than 80 million Americans. It’s the number one cause of death in America, claiming more lives each year than cancer, car accidents and AIDS combined. To help you know more, here are some of the most frequently asked questions about cardiovascular disease.

What is the cardiovascular system?
The cardiovascular system is actually two separate systems that work together to deliver blood with nutrients and oxygen to the body’s organs, muscles and other vital tissues. The first system, cardio- meaning the heart – involves the heart muscle and its valves. The heart and its valves work together as the pump that pushes the blood through the body. The second system, vascular – meaning all the blood vessels (arteries and veins) – is the network of channels through which blood flows, delivering nutrients and oxygen to organs and tissues throughout the body.
There are two types of channels: arteries, which carry oxygen-rich blood away from the heart, and veins, which take blood back to the heart for more oxygen.

What is cardiovascular disease?
When medical professionals think about cardiovascular diseases and disorders, they usually divide them into two separate categories. The first, heart disease, affects the vessels in and around your heart. The second, vascular disease, affects the rest of the vessels in your body. Without a medical exam, there’s no way to tell for sure which vessels in your body are most at risk. That’s why you should talk to your doctor or a SLU Care specialist about the tests and treatment options available to maintain your cardiovascular health and to treat cardiovascular disease.

If left untreated, many forms of cardiovascular disease can be fatal, but with proper medical treatment and lifestyle changes, most people who’ve been diagnosed can live for many years.

What are the different types of cardiovascular diseases and disorders?
Abnormal Heart Rhythms (Arrhythmias)
Abnormal heart rhythms, or arrhythmias, are when the heart isn’t properly reading the electrical signals that tell it when to beat. As a result, the heart beats in an abnormal rhythm.

Aneurysms (Aortic and Abdominal)
An aneurysm is an abnormal widening or enlargement of a blood vessel. This happens when the wall of the blood vessel weakens. Over time, an aneurysm can get big enough and the tension in the artery wall strong enough to cause the aneurysm to rapture. When this happens in the chest or abdomen, the outcome is often fatal. Aneurysms can develop on any blood vessel in your body, but there are certain areas that are more susceptible than others.

• A thoracic aortic aneurysm is an aneurysm that develops in the aorta, the artery that takes blood away from the heart. These aneurysms develop in the chest near the heart or down the back near the left lung.
• An abdominal aortic aneurysm is an aneurysm that develops in the aorta in the abdomen in the space below your breathing muscle (diaphragm) between your kidneys. This is a continuation of the thoracic (chest) aorta and it divides to go to each leg.

Cardiomyopathy is a very serious form of heart disease where the muscle of the heart becomes weak, keeping the heart from working as it should.

Congenital Heart Disease
There are many different types of malformations of the heart that can occur during fetal development. These malformations are called inborn or congenital heart defects. The most common is a hole between the chambers of the heart.

Congestive Heart Failure
Congestive heart failure is a condition in which the heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the metabolic needs of the body’s other organs. The failing heart keeps working, but not as efficiently as it should. People with heart failure often become short of breath and tired when they exert themselves. Congestive heart failure can result from coronary artery disease, a past heart attack, high blood pressure, heart valve disease, cardiomyopathy, birth defects, or an infection of the heart valves or the heart muscle.

Coronary Artery Disease
Coronary artery disease is the build-up of plaque in the main arteries that supply the heart with oxygen-rich blood and other nutrients. In coronary artery disease, the arteries that carry blood to your heart build up with plaque and narrow. Over time, the blood may clot on the plaque, clogging the artery. Risk factors for coronary artery disease include: high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol or other lipids, cigarette smoking, a family history of coronary artery disease, and perhaps lack of exercise and obesity.

Heart Valve Disease
When there is something wrong with the valves in your heart it affects the blood flow through your heart. Dysfunctional valves may be “leaky,” allowing the blood to go backwards, or “narrowed,” making it hard to get blood through the valve. Sometimes a valve is both leaky (insufficient) and narrowed (stenotic). These abnormal valves can put excess stress on the heart muscle, resulting in congestive heart failure. Heart valve disease is common in the elderly and those with previous rheumatic fever.

Peripheral Vascular Disease (in arteries and veins)
Peripheral vascular disease refers to diseases in the blood vessels outside of the heart and brain. It’s often a narrowing of the blood vessels that carry blood to leg and arm muscles. There are two types of these circulation disorders:

• Functional peripheral vascular diseases don’t have an organic cause and don’t involve defects in blood vessels’ structure. They’re usually short-term effects and can come and go. Raynaud’s disease (or Raynaud’s phenomenon) is an example. People with Raynaud’s have spasms in the arteries of the hand and/or feet, which causes severe pain and tingling. It can be triggered by cold temperatures, emotional stress, working with vibrating machinery or smoking.
• Organic peripheral vascular diseases are caused by structural changes in the blood vessels (suck as inflammation and tissue damage). Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is an example. PAD caused by atherosclerosis, is a general term for thickening or hardening of the arteries.

What are the symptoms of cardiovascular disease?
There are many different symptoms you can experience if you have cardiovascular disease.

For people who may be suffering from heart disease, common symptoms are:
• Angina (A burning, squeezing, ache in the center of your chest or left arm that feels like your heart might collapse because of the pressure. These attacks can last anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes.)
• Rapid heart beat (palpitations)
• Shortness of breath
• Nausea
• Heavy sweating

For those who may be suffering from vascular disease, common symptoms are:
• Pain in the thigh, calf or buttocks when you are active (pain goes away when you rest)
• Numbness or continuing pain in the feet
• Foot injuries or ulcers that do not heal
• Severe abdominal pain
• Failure to have an erection in males

Learning more about the symptoms of cardiovascular disease cannot only help prevent a heart attack or stroke, it can help you live a better quality of life.

What are the risk factors for cardiovascular disease?
Because so many Americans suffer from heart disease, it’s important to know whether or not you’re at risk. Cardiovascular disease starts slowly, often without any noticeable symptoms. So, if you fall into any of these categories, talk to your doctor or a SLUCare specialist about cardiovascular disease.

Typical risk factors are:
• Smoking and overexposure to second-hand smoke
• 20 pounds or more overweight
• High blood pressure
• High cholesterol levels
• Diabetes
• Inactive lifestyle
• Excessive stress
• A family history of heart or vascular disease
• Age: 45+ for men/ 55+ for women or if you’ve passed menopause

What are the steps to prevent cardiovascular disease?
The best way to fight cardiovascular disease is through education and lifestyle changes. Know yourself. Find out what your body needs and change things in your lifestyle that put you at risk. Don’t put off thinking about your health because in the long run, prevention makes a difference.
Here are some prevention tips:
• Have your doctor check your blood pressure regularly
• Know your cholesterol and triglyceride levels
• Watch your weight
• Get active. Exercise regularly, if not everyday
• Drink alcohol in moderation if not otherwise prohibited
• Eat less salt, red meat and fatty foods
• Manage the amount of stress in your life
• Pay attention to any pain you’re feeling. If you have severe chest pains, go to the nearest emergency room
• If needed, talk to your doctor about a regimented diet and exercise program

Cardiovascular Services Program


Testing and Treatment for Cardiovascular Diseases and Disorders