1 What are cardiovascular diseases?

1.1 A simple introduction

Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) is a ‘catch all’ phrase used to describe a variety of diseases of the heart and blood circulatory system. The main types of CVD are listed in Table 1, along with commonly used alternative descriptions. (Also see Box 1.) In Figure 1, CVDs are indicated in association with the particular body area where they mainly occur. It is useful to become more familiar with some of the more common terms that you will be encountering and their general definitions. To help you with any new medical terms, this unit has an accompanying glossary which contains definitions for all of the words printed in bold in the text. Be sure to refer to it as you work your way through the unit, when you come across new or unfamiliar terms.

Table 1: The major types of cardiovascular diseases, together with acronyms and/or commonly used alternative names

Disease Abbreviations and alternative names
cardiovascular diseases CVDs
angina pectoris angina, chest pain
arrhythmia irregular heart beat
atherosclerosis hardened arteries, furred up arteries
congenital defects birth heart/valve defects
coronary heart disease CHD, heart disease
heart failure acute or chronic heart failure, congestive heart failure
hypertension elevated or high blood pressure
ischaemia ischæmia, ischemia
myocardial infarction MI
stroke cerebrovascular disease

Figure 1: Outline of the human body indicating the particular body area generally associated with the various cardiovascular diseases

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Box 1: CVD or CHD?

You may have heard statistics about how many people are killed by cardiovascular diseases (CVDs): one in three people in the UK, one in four men and one in three women in the USA, or similar such figures for elsewhere in the world. So what are CVDs and how do they differ from heart disease or even coronary heart disease (CHD), which you will have heard used?

Firstly, CVDs describes a number of different diseases of the heart and circulatory system, including CHD and stroke. This is why this unit refers to cardiovascular diseases in the plural, as opposed to referring to a single disease.

So it should not be too surprising to learn that there is no simple cause of CVDs. Reassuringly though, there are a wide range of drugs and medical procedures available for CVD patients. There are also many contributing lifestyle factors that have been identified, which can be modified to either reduce the risk of developing CVDs or to help those living with it. You will learn about these throughout this unit.

Occasionally in scientific literature and on the internet, the acronym CVD is also used to describe cerebrovascular disease (stroke). Be careful when you research the subject not to confuse this condition with cardiovascular diseases.