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I recently went to a dessert party. That’s a party where everyone brings a dessert. I, naturally, arrived with cookies while others brought cakes and pies. Surprisingly, there was one attendee who presented a bowl of berries, another who showcased a sweet potato casserole, and a third who simply brought avocado with a dash of salt. Do these all count as desserts? What is a dessert? A word that was clear at the outset was quickly confusing in how broad it was. Unfortunately, that confusion can also happen with medical terms. Take cardiovascular disease. It’s got something to do with the heart, but sometimes it includes strokes in the brain. So what is cardiovascular disease?
“Cardiovascular” is a word made of two component parts: cardio- means “heart” and vascular indicates blood vessels. Together, cardiovascular disease is that which affects the heart and/or blood vessels. The heart and blood vessels carry oxygen to the cells and keep them alive. Since we’re made of cells, keeping them alive is pretty important. Therefore, the heart and blood vessels are also quite important, and cardiovascular disease can be dangerous if not managed.
Cardiovascular disease is more common than apple pie in the United States. Data from the CDC show that nearly HALF of adults over 20 have some form of cardiovascular disease. With a prevalence that high, it’s no surprise that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in America and around the world. Unfortunately, as noted above, the exact definition of “cardiovascular disease” is very broad. In researching this article you are currently reading, I consulted the World Health Organization, the American Heart Association, and the National Institute of Health (part of the CDC). These organizations listed the various diseases included in cardiovascular disease, and only agreed on two conditions:
- Coronary artery disease – when the blood vessels to the heart are narrowed by plaques
- Cerebrovascular disease including stroke – where the vessels to be brain are blocked
Other diseases that at least two agreed on include:
- Arrhythmia – an irregular heartbeat
- Congenital heart defects – heart defects occurring from birth
- Heart attack – also called a myocardial infarction, where the blood flow to the heart is blocked
- Hypertension – high blood pressure
Though all these diseases may seem different, they are all part of the same system. Narrow blood vessels to the heart or brain cause oxygen loss. This narrowing can be caused by plaque formed when cholesterol lodges in the vessel wall. If some of this plaque dislodges, it can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Irregular heartbeats and heart attacks can lower the amount of blood (and oxygen!) delivered around the body. Hypertension stresses the whole system and can lead to heart attack, stroke, and damage to other organs like the kidneys. Additionally, they may have similar risk factors, outcomes, and treatments.
There is a genetic component to cardiovascular disease. This is evident with congenital heart defects, which occur during development. It is also evident looking at who is at risk of developing cardiovascular disease. African Americans are at the highest risk, while people who identify as Hispanic have the lowest risk. Big modifiable risks include cholesterol, smoking, and hypertension (which is itself a form of cardiovascular disease!). Other risks include diabetes, being overweight, poor diet, low exercise, alcohol consumption, and low sleep. Research is ongoing into the cycle of mental health and cardiovascular disease as well. Mood and anxiety disorders, PTSD, and chronic stress can cause direct damage to the cardiovascular system while simultaneously increasing behaviors that compound the danger, including smoking and failing to take medicines.
Lowering the modifiable risks above is, unsurprisingly, one of the best ways to fight cardiovascular disease. Managing cholesterol, blood pressure, and diabetes can help. Cutting smoking and lowering alcohol intake can make a big difference. Getting help with mental health (and getting a good night’s sleep) may help your heart relax as well. Maintaining a healthy weight through a good diet and dynamic exercise is vital. Unfortunately, without management, cardiovascular disease is more like a desert than a dessert: it can kill you.
Staff Writer / Editor Benton Lowey-Ball, BS, BFA
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (July 19, 2021). Coronary artery disease (CAD). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/coronary_ad.htm
National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention. (May 15, 2023). About heart disease. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/about.htm
American Heart Association. (May 31, 2017). What is cardiovascular disease? https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/consumer-healthcare/what-is-cardiovascular-disease
Tsao, C. W., Aday, A. W., Almarzooq, Z. I., Alonso, A., Beaton, A. Z., Bittencourt, M. S., … & American Heart Association Council on Epidemiology and Prevention Statistics Committee and Stroke Statistics Subcommittee. (2022). Heart disease and stroke statistics—2022 update: a report from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 145(8), e153-e639. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/CIR.0000000000001123
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (n.d). Heart and vascular diseases. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/science/heart-and-vascular-diseases Accessed on September 12, 2023.
The World Health Organization. (June 11, 2021). Cardiovascular diseases (CVD). https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/cardiovascular-diseases-(cvds)