Cardiovascular disease ranks as one of the top causes of death in many of the developed countries, and millions of people suffer from the most common heart and blood vessel conditions. Many cardiovascular problems go undetected, showing no symptoms until the problem becomes critical. Two of the most common cardiovascular problems — high blood pressure and the build up of plaque in the arteries — increase in incidence as people age, and neither have early warning signs. Left untreated, they increase the risk for the development of more severe problems, like atherosclerosis, stroke, heart attack, and heart failure. Other common heart problems may be present from birth, such as irregular heartbeat and congenital heart defects.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is seen most frequently in people of middle age and older; half or more of those over 65 have hypertension. As arteries constrict, the heart works harder to pump adequate amounts of blood through the body. Without treatment, the increased pressure on the arteries causes damage to the blood vessels, kidneys and other organs. Hypertension also elevates the risk for heart attack, heart failure and stroke. Stress, smoking and lack of exercise are just some of the risk factors that contribute to the formation of this cardiovascular disease.
Atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, occurs as plaque accumulates on the inside of the arteries. If this happens in the coronary arteries, the flow of nutrients and oxygen to the heart muscle diminishes, potentially causing damage to the heart. Coronary artery disease is the leading cause of heart attacks and may go completely undetected until a heart attack occurs. Hardening of the arteries outside the heart is called peripheral artery disease, and generally affects the blood flow to the arms or legs. Atherosclerosis is another of the cardiovascular problems seen most often in middle aged and older adults, but in some people it may start to develop in childhood, gradually progressing over decades.
Heart failure occurs when the heart cannot adequately pump blood through the body. The incidence of heart failure is on the rise in many parts of the world, and the causes are complex. Almost all of the other cardiovascular problems can eventually lead to heart failure, especially high blood pressure, a previous heart attack, and irregular heartbeats. Once the pumping action of the heart becomes weak, fluids build up in the extremities and lungs. Although it cannot be cured, there are many treatment choices to improve the quality of life of those with heart failure.
Other common cardiovascular problems include arrhythmia, valve problems and congenital heart defects. With arrhythmia, the heartbeat is too fast, too slow or irregular. It can weaken the heart over time, although some arrhythmias are harmless. Any of the four valves in the heart can malfunction, causing disturbances in the ability of the heart to pump blood. Congenital heart problems vary greatly in their nature, severity and treatment.