Cardiovascular Disease 101

February 2022

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading killer of both men and women in the U.S., causing some 660,000 deaths a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The American Heart Association reports that every 36 seconds someone dies from CVD — an umbrella term for several diseases that affect the heart, arteries, and blood vessels.

Here is what you should know about the types of CVD and whether you are at risk.


Arrhythmias are when your heart beats irregularly. It can beat too fast, too slow, or skip beats. The problem can be triggered by anything that causes changes to your heart tissue or in the electrical signals that control your heartbeat. This includes infection, injury, or a genetic condition.

Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of arrhythmia, according to the AHA. It is when your heart’s two small upper chambers (atria) beat too fast and irregularly.

Some people can feel their irregular heartbeat. Some cannot. Symptoms can include feeling faint or dizzy, or having a fluttering feeling in your chest. You can also have difficulty breathing.

Untreated arrhythmias can lead to blood pooling in the atria and the formation of clots. This can lead to stroke, heart failure, or sudden cardiac arrest.

Coronary artery disease (CAD)

The most common type of heart disease, coronary artery disease (CAD), kills more than 360,000 people annually, according to the CDC. Eighty percent of people who die from it are aged 65 or older.

Also known as coronary heart disease, CAD occurs when plaque builds up in the heart’s arteries. Over time, this buildup can restrict blood supply to your heart muscle, increasing your risk of heart attack. The plaque can also rupture suddenly, causing a blood clot that can lead to a stroke. Symptoms of CAD include chest pain or palpitations, shortness of breath, and fatigue.

Plaque can also accumulate in other arteries in your body, a condition known as atherosclerosis or aortic disease. Besides CAD, aortic disease includes:

  • Angina: Chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart muscle.
  • Carotid artery disease: This is when plaque builds in neck arteries, reducing blood flow to your brain.
  • Peripheral artery disease (PAD): This is when plaque builds up in the arteries of your extremities, especially your legs.

Heart attack

A healthy heart needs oxygen to function. Heart attacks happen when the blood flow that supplies your heart with oxygen is reduced or blocked. CAD is the main cause of heart attacks. Every 40 seconds, someone in the U.S.—about 805,000 people each year—has a heart attack, according to the CDC.

Chest pain and pressure in the center of your chest is a common warning sign of a heart attack. But you can also have shortness of breath and discomfort in your upper body, including in one or both arms, as well as your jaw, neck, back, or stomach. Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, and feeling lightheaded can also signal a heart attack.


Stroke is the fifth-leading cause of death and the leading cause of serious long-term disability for Americans, according to the CDC.

A stroke is a cerebrovascular disease that happens when blood flow to the brain is blocked. Brain cells start to die within minutes of oxygen deprivation, so it is critical to get help immediately if you or someone you know has any of these signs:

  • Facial drooping.
  • Arm weakness.
  • Difficulty speaking or slurring your words.
  • Sudden numbness or weakness, confusion, trouble seeing, trouble walking, or severe headache with no known cause.

Risk factors for CVD

Cardiovascular diseases share several common causes and risk factors, including:

  • As you get older, your chances of having heart disease increase.
  • Family history and genetics.
  • Lifestyle habits. Smoking, excessive alcohol use, and using illegal drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines contribute to heart and vascular problems. So do a sedentary lifestyle and poor dietary habits.
  • Underlying medical conditions, including uncontrolled diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and sleep apnea.

Many cardiovascular diseases are preventable with the right treatment plan and lifestyle changes. If you have any of the risk factors or symptoms for CVD, see your doctor regularly to get screened.

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