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Cardiovascular Diseases


Cardiovascular disease is a general diagnostic category consisting of several separate diseases of the heart and circulatory system. Cardiovascular diseases have been the major health problem and the leading cause of death in the United States for several decades. Despite impressive and sustained declines in the mortality rates from these diseases, the magnitude of the problem is still staggering. In 1997 alone, nearly 1 million people died of cardiovascular disease, which was about 40 percent of all deaths. The two most important components are coronary heart disease and cerebrovascular disease, with 460,390 dying of coronary heart disease and 158,060 dying of cerebrovascular disease in 1998. In 2000, it was estimated that cardiovascular diseases carried a direct heath expenditure cost of $186 billion and additional indirect costs of $190 billion, making these diseases a continuing major contributor to the escalating cost of health care in the United States.

These diseases have not always been the major health problem of the United States. In 1900 the five leading causes of death were: (1) pneumonia and influenza; (2) tuberculosis; (3) diarrhea, enteritis, and ulceration of the intestines; (4) diseases of the heart; and (5) intracranial lesions of vascular origin. These categories all had rates greater than 100 per 100,000 population. By 1940, only two disease categories still had rates greater than 100 per 100,000: diseases of the heart and cancer and other malignant tumors. The infectious diseases had been substantially reduced, but the "epidemic" of cardiovascular disease, especially coronary heart disease had begun. By 1963, the mortality rate from coronary heart disease reached its pear, and there has been a progressive and steady decline since then (see Figure 1). Despite the continued magnitude of the coronary heart disease problem, the focus recently has been on this dramatic reversal. Not only is the percentage of decline large (56% from 1963 to 1998), but this has greatly impacted the total number of deaths in the United States, leading to an increase in life expectancy. To illustrate the impact of this change, it is estimated that if the rate of coronary heart disease mortality had not changed from its peak in 1963, in the year 1998 an additional 684,000 Americans would have died from this cause.


From several studies around the world, several risk factors for cardiovascular disease have been identified. These risk factors can be grouped into two broad categories: unmodifiable factors (such as male gender, and family history of premature heart diseases) and potentially modifiable factors (such as cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, high blood-cholesterol level, physical inactivity,

Figure 1

diabetes, and obesity). These factors can be used to identify those in the population who are at especially high risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Cigarette Smoking. Cigarette smoking has been established as a risk factor not only for lung cancer, emphysema, and bronchitis but also for coronary, cerebral, and peripheral vascular disease. This association has been seen in many countries, among widely diverse ethnic groups, in both sexes, and across various adult age groups. In addition, the risk increases with heavier cigarette use and the longer one has smoked. Equally important has been the observation that this increased risk falls rapidly over time when people quit smoking. For coronary heart disease, approximately 40 percent of the increased risk is removed within five years of quitting, although it takes several more years of nonsmoking to achieve the level associated with someone who has never smoked.

High Blood Pressure. High blood pressure is a powerful risk factor for cerebrovascular disease as well as for coronary heart disease. An estimated 50 million people have high blood pressure, defined as a level equal to or greater than 140 mmHg systolic pressure or 90 mmHg diastolic pressure, or as being on a regimen of antihypertensive medication. An important result of epidemiologic studies has been the observation that the relationship between blood pressure and cardiovascular risk is not only a positive one (higher blood pressure results in higher disease rates) but also a smooth one (there was no sharp breakpoint in the curve such that below a certain blood pressure level the risk remained constant or became nonexistent). Thus, the lower the blood pressure, within reasonable physiologic limits, the lower the level of risk. These observations prompted several important intervention trials, which have now clearly established the value of aggressively treating elevated blood pressure.

Blood Cholesterol Levels. A clear and positive relationship between blood cholesterol levels and subsequent coronary heart disease has repeatedly been demonstrated. Recent information has refined the nature of this association but not weakened it. Cholesterol in the plasma is transported by lipoproteins. The cholesterol level associated with the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) fraction is positively correlated with coronary heart disease, whereas the cholesterol associated with the high-density lipoprotein (HDL) is negatively correlated (the higher the level, the lower the risk). These observations have been verified in several different populations and have been shown to be independent of each other, as well as of other known risk factors. The evidence regarding HDL, although more recent than that for LDL, supports a powerful and independent role for HDL in lowering coronary heart disease risk and probably explains a significant portion of the difference in risk between men and women, with women having higher average levels of HDL than men.

Physical Inactivity. An association between a less active lifestyle and increased risk of coronary heart disease has been shown in multiple longitudinal and cross-sectional studies in such diverse groups as London transit workers, United States longshoremen, and United States college graduates. Traditionally, this risk factor was considered less important and less powerful than the three already mentioned. However, recent reviews of the total body of scientific evidence have led to the classification of this risk factor as one of the four major modifiable risk factors for coronary heart disease. Consequently, there are more consistent recommendations for an active lifestyle and recognition of its importance not only to health but also to disease prevention.

Obesity. Initial epidemiologic data identified obesity as an important risk factor for coronary heart disease. Subsequent analyses, however, suggested that obesity was not a primary risk factor, but rather acted indirectly through elevation of blood pressure and cholesterol levels. More recent analyses of the data from the Framingham Heart Study, with longer follow-up of people in the cohort, have once again suggested that obesity is indeed a primary risk factor that acts independently of those other factors. Clinically, the resolution of this issue of primary versus secondary causation is somewhat irrelevant. Weight reduction should lower the risk of coronary heart disease, whether it acts through a lowered blood pressure and/or cholesterol level or as a lowered risk factor itself.

Diabetes. Diabetes is a powerful and independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease, which remains the major cause of death in diabetic persons. An important remaining issue is whether and elevated blood-glucose level is responsible for the observed higher rate of cardiovascular disease and, if it is, whether lowering or, preferably, normalizing the glucose level will lower the risk. Regardless of the answers, for the present the important observation is that diabetic individuals are at higher risk of cardiovascular disease, and thus careful attention should be paid not just to the blood-glucose level and its control but also to the other risk factors that may coexist in a given patient and additionally elevate the risk.

Other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as homocysteine and LPa, have been identified in single or multiple studies, but further information is needed to establish them as independent, important prognostic factors.

William T. Friedewald

(see also: Atherosclerosis; Blood Lipids; Blood Pressure; Coronary Artery Disease; Diabetes Mellitus; Fats; Foods and Diets; HDL Cholesterol; LDL Cholesterol; Lifestyle; Lipoproteins; Physical Activity; Smoking Behavior; Smoking Cessation; Tobacco Control )


Goldman, L., and Cook, E. F. (1984). "The Decline in Ischemic Heart Disease Mortality Rates: An Analysis of the Comparative Effects of Medical Interventions and Changes in Lifestyle." Annals of Internal Medicine 101:825.

National Center for Health Statistics. Health, United States, 2000. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (1994). "Second Report of the National Cholesterol Education Program Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults." Circulation 89:13331445.

National Institutes of Health (1997). The Sixth Report of the Joint National Committee on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure. Bethesda, MD: Author.

World Health Organization. World Health Report, 2000. Geneva: Author.

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Cardiovascular Diseases

Cardiovascular Diseases

Cardiovascular diseases affect the heart or the blood vessels. Because the cardiovascular system provides oxygen and nutrients to cells and removes wastes from them, these diseases have profound impacts on health.


Heart dysfunction can range from mild abnormalities to complete failure. The heart beats almost forty million times a year. Variants of the heartbeat can affect health and are called arrhythmias. A persistent resting heart rate above one hundred beats per minute is called tachycardia, and below sixty, bradycardia. If the cause is in the ventricles, the condition is termed ventricular tachycardia or bradycardia. If the cause is in the atria , it is termed supraventricular.

A number of factors can cause arrhythmias, including abnormal circulating levels of electrolytes , particularly potassium and calcium, and damage to the heart from insufficient blood flow (ischemia). An electrocardiogram (ECG) may be helpful in determining the cause. An ECG measures the electrical activity of the heart from the skin, even though the heart is deep within the thoracic (chest) cavity.

Heart Failure

In heart failure, the heart is unable to contract with sufficient force to pump blood to all body parts. Eventually, the lack of adequate blood flow causes death. Heart failure has several causes. Disease of the heart muscle, called cardiomyopathy, is one cause that can be inherited, or have no known origin. More commonly heart failure is associated with insufficient blood flow, which may reflect a blockage in the circulatory pathway.

Heart failure is commonly associated with hypertension (high blood pressure), in which the muscular walls of blood vessels contract, impeding blood flow. The heart must work harder to pump the blood and may hypertrophy, or overgrow, to meet the challenge. Eventually, the increased mass requires more oxygen than blood flow to the heart can provide, and the heart muscle begins to fail.


Hypertension may stretch and weaken areas of blood vessel walls, leading to an aneurysm , in which the weakened area balloons out and may burst. In a major blood vessel, this can be rapidly fatal. If such a ruptured vessel occurs in the brain, brain cells are killed and a stroke results. Stroke may also occur when a blood clot blocks blood flow to part of the brain, a condition called an embolism. Embolisms can occur in any blood vessel, but those in the brain can be especially devastating.

Heart Attack

Decreased blood flow to heart muscle cells can result in a heart attack, or myocardial infarction. This is more likely to occur when heart oxygen demands increase, as during exercise, or if blood vessels to the heart are partially blocked, as in atherosclerosis, in which fatty deposits form on the inner linings of coronary arteries. Initially, decreased blood flow causes angina pectoris, which is a sensation of heavy pressure or squeezing in the chest that may be accompanied by sweating, difficulty breathing, nausea, and vomiting. Complete blockage causes a heart attack, in which heart muscle cells die. It can be fatal.

Valve Disorders

Valves in the heart ensure that pumped blood always leaves through the arteries, and does not reverse direction through the veins. Valve defects can seriously impair the heart's ability to pump blood. Mitral valve prolapse is a common abnormality in which the valve separating the atrium and ventricle bulges back into the atrium when the ventricle contracts. It produces a distinctive type of heart murmur that can be heard through a stethoscope. Symptoms include chest pain, fatigue, and anxiety. Infection by certain species of Streptococcus bacteria can lead to mitral valve damage. The bacteria and the mitral valve have similar surface chemistry. When the immune system attacks the bacteria, it may also attack the valve.

see also Autoimmune Disease; Blood Clotting; Blood Vessels; Circulatory Systems; Heart and Circulation; Smoking and Health

David Shier


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Cardiovascular Disease. <>.

The Mayo Clinic's Heart and Blood Vessel Center. <>.

McCance, K. L., and S. E. Huether. Pathophysiology: The Biologic Basis for Disease in Adults and Children, 3rd ed. St. Louis: Mosby, 1998.

Sandeep, Jauhar. "Saving the Heart Can Sometimes Mean Losing the Memory." New York Times (19 September 2000): F1.

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