Introduction 

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a general term that describes a disease of the heart or blood vessels.

Blood flow to the heart, brain or body can be reduced as the result of a blood clot (thrombosis), or by a build-up of fatty deposits inside an artery that cause the artery to harden and narrow (atherosclerosis).

Types of CVD

There are four main types of CVD. They are:

  • coronary heart disease
  • stroke
  • peripheral arterial disease
  • aortic disease

Coronary heart disease

Coronary heart disease (CHD) occurs when the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your heart is blocked or reduced by a build-up of fatty material (atheroma) in the coronary arteries.

The coronary arteries are the two major blood vessels that supply your heart with blood. As they narrow because of a build-up of atheroma, the blood supply to your heart will be restricted. This can cause angina (chest pain). If a coronary artery becomes completely blocked, it can cause a heart attack.

Read more about coronary heart disease.

Stroke

A stroke is a serious medical condition that occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off.

Like all organs, the brain needs a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients to function properly. This is provided by the blood, so if your blood flow is restricted or stopped, brain cells will begin to die. This can cause brain damage and possibly death.

A stroke is therefore a medical emergency and prompt treatment is essential. The sooner a person who has had a stroke receives treatment, the less damage is likely to occur.

The main symptoms of stroke can be remembered with the word FAST, which stands for:

  • Face  the face may have drooped on one side, the person may be unable to smile, or their mouth or eye may have drooped
  • Arms – the person may be unable to lift their arm and keep it raised because of weakness or numbness
  • Speech – the person's speech may be slurred or garbled, or they may not be able to talk at all
  • Time – it's time to dial 999 immediately if you see any of these signs or symptoms

Read more about stroke and recognising the signs of stroke.

Peripheral arterial disease

Peripheral arterial disease, also known as peripheral vascular disease, occurs when there's a blockage in the arteries to your limbs (usually your legs).

The most common symptom of peripheral arterial disease is pain in your legs when walking. This is usually in one or both of your thighs, hips or calves.

The pain can feel like cramp, a dull pain or a sensation of heaviness in your leg muscles. It usually comes and goes, and gets worse during exercise that uses your legs, such as walking or climbing stairs.

Read more about peripheral arterial disease.

Aortic disease

The aorta is the largest blood vessel in the body. It carries blood from your heart to the rest of your body.

The most common type of aortic disease is an aortic aneurysm, where the wall of the aorta becomes weakened and bulges outwards. You'll usually experience pain in your chest, back or abdomen (tummy).

Risk factors for CVD

There are a number of risk factors for CVD, including:

The amount of alcohol you drink and how you deal with stress are also thought to be linked to the risk of developing CVD.

Read more about these risk factors for CVD.

Preventing CVD

Most deaths caused by cardiovascular disease are premature and could easily be prevented by making lifestyle changes, such as eating healthilyexercising regularly and stopping smoking.

Addressing one risk factor, such as giving up smoking, will bring important health benefits, but to significantly reduce your risk of developing CVD you need to look at your lifestyle as a whole.

In particular, you need to consider:

  • your diet
  • your weight
  • how much alcohol you drink
  • how much exercise you do
  • whether you need to stop smoking

Read more about preventing cardiovascular disease in adulthood.

Children 

Evidence shows that eating and drinking habits established during childhood can continue for many years into adulthood.

Bad eating habits during childhood may not pose an immediate health risk, but they could lead to serious health problems in adulthood.

Four important things to consider are the amount of:

  • fat in your child's diet
  • salt in your child's diet
  • sugar in your child's diet
  • exercise your child does

Read more about preventing cardiovascular disease during childhood.

Cardiac risk assessment

Find out how a cardiovascular risk assessment can detect whether you're at risk of heart disease.

Media last reviewed: 14/05/2013

Next review due: 14/05/2015

Public health problem

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a big health problem. In 2011, there were almost 160,000 deaths as a result of CVD. Around 74,000 of these deaths were caused by coronary heart disease, which is the UK's biggest killer.

Most deaths from heart disease are caused by heart attacks. In the UK, there are about 103,000 heart attacks each year.

There are also around 152,000 strokes in the UK each year, resulting in more than 41,000 deaths.

Page last reviewed: 15/09/2014

Next review due: 15/09/2016