What is cardiovascular disease? Causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, complications, & prevention

Cardiovascular disease or CVD refers to any diseases involving the heart or blood vessels. Veins and arteries are blood vessels. CVD is the leading cause of death globally.

The terms cardiovascular disease and heart disease are closely related, but their meanings are not exactly the same. All heart diseases are cardiovascular diseases, but not all cardiovascular diseases are heart disease. Cardiovascular disease includes both the heart and blood vessels, while heart disease includes only the heart.

CVD is a major and growing public health concern across the world. The academic journal Circulation says the following about cardiovascular disease (CVD) in India:

“CVD is a major public health problem in India, often impacting the most productive years of an individual’s life. The age-standardized CVD death rate of 272 per 100 000 population in India is higher than the global average of 235 per 100 000 population.””The epidemiological transition plays out differently in different regions of India because of varied economic development.”

Types of Cardiovascular Diseases

There are several types of cardiovascular diseases, let’s have a look at some of them:

  • Coronary artery disease (CAD)

This is the most common and is characterized by an accumulation of plaque in the coronary arteries. The plaque build-up narrows the blood vessels, thus restricting blood flow to the heart.

  • Cerebrovascular disease

The blood vessels that supply the brain are affected, leading to strokes and TIAs (transient ischemic attacks). We often refer to TIAs as ministrokes.

  • Peripheral artery disease (PAD)

Involves the narrowing or blockage of blood vessels in the limbs, typically affecting the legs.

  • Heart failure

This is a chronic (long-term) condition in which the heart is unable to pump blood efficiently. Fluid builds up in certain parts of the body, such as the legs. The condition leads to organ damage.

  • Arrhythmias

The heart beats too slowly, too fast, or irregularly.

  • Valvular heart disease

A valve in the heart is either damaged or does not work properly, affecting the flow of blood within the heart.

  • Congenital heart disease

Anything that is congenital is present at birth. If you were born with heart disease, you have congenital heart disease.

Causes and Risk Factors

The following factors contribute towards the occurrence or development of heart disease:

  • Age – as we get older, our risk gets bigger.
  • Ethnicity – People of African ancestry and some other ethnic groups are more prone to CVD than the general population in the US and UK.
  • Gender – men are more likely to develop CVD than women. However, as we reach old age, the gap narrows considerably.
  • Lifestyle – smoking, regularly drinking too much alcohol, a poor diet, and not doing exercise or going for walks increase your risk of developing CVD.
  • Medical conditions/diseases – your risk is greater if you have diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension (high blood pressure), or if you are obese.
  • Your genes – if you have a family history of CVD, your risk of developing it yourself is greater than average.

Regarding CVD in England, the NHS (National Health Service) says the following:

“CVD affects around seven million people in the UK and is a significant cause of disability and death. CVD is responsible for one in four premature deaths in the UK and accounts for the largest gap in health life expectancy.”
“Those in the most deprived 10% of the population are almost twice as likely to die as a result of CVD, than those in the least deprived 10% of the population.”

Heart Disease - Cardiovascular Disease - Death total US

Heart Disease and Stroke are 2 types of Cardiovascular Diseases. Image from kff.org, adapted by medicalvocab.com.

Signs and symptoms of cardiovascular disease

Signs and symptoms vary, depending on which condition you have. Here are the most common ones:

  • Angina, i.e., chest pain or discomfort.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Weakness, fatigue.
  • Lightheadedness.
  • Leg numbness or pain.
  • Swollen angles, feet, or legs.
  • Arrhythmias, i.e., palpitations or irregular heartbeats.

Signs and symptoms are not the same. A symptom is something that only the patient is aware of – nobody else knows about it if the patient does not tell them. A headache is a symptom. A sign is something that the patient and other people can detect. A scar and a skin rash are two examples of signs.


The doctor will carry out a physical examination of the patient, check their medical history, and order various tests, including:

  • A Stress Test, which monitors the heart’s response to exercise or drug-induced stress.
  • An ECG (electrocardiogram) to measure the electrical activity of the heart.
  • An Echocardiogram, which tells us about the heart’s structure and function.
  • Blood tests to check blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels, and other CVD markers.

Some imaging tests such as MRI or CT scans can provide detailed information about the heart and blood vessels.

Treatment for cardiovascular disease

Treatment depends on exactly what type of CVD the patient has. These treatment options are the most common:

  • Medications

The doctor may prescribe drugs to lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and other factors that contribute to CVD.

  • Lifestyle

A healthy, balanced diet, regular physical activity, giving up smoking, giving up or limiting alcohol consumption, can help manage CVD.

If you plan to do exercise, talk to your doctor first.

  • Medical Procedures

Bypass surgery, stents, a valve replacement/repair, or angioplasty may be necessary. These are all surgical procedures.

  • Medical Devices

The doctor may recommend placing a pacemaker or ICD (implantable cardioverter-defibrillator) to regulate heart rhythm.


Prevention involves addressing the risk factors that we can modify (modifiable risk factors) and making certain lifestyle choices:

  • Maintain a healthy, balanced diet.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Maintain a healthy bodyweight.
  • Do not smoke.
  • If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.
  • Manage stress with such techniques as deep breathing exercise, meditation, and yoga.

According to the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

“One person dies every 34 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease. About 697,000 people in the United States died from heart disease in 2020—that’s 1 in every 5 deaths.”
“Heart disease cost the United States about $229 billion each year from 2017 to 2018.3 This includes the cost of health care services, medicines, and lost productivity due to death.”

If you have some of the signs and symptoms mentioned in this article, or if you fear that you may have a cardiovascular disease, talk to your doctor.