Understanding the Basics

What is Cardiovascular Disease?

Cardiovascular disease is a term used to describe several conditions or diseases that affect the heart and blood vessels. Heart disease is the #1 cause of death worldwide, accounting for more than 40 percent of all deaths in the United States. Risks factors for heart disease include characteristics or behaviors that increase your chance of developing heart disease – the more risk factors you have, the greater your risk. There are several risk factors that can put you at increased risk for heart and vascular disease. The key to maintaining a healthy heart is to understand and manage your risk factors.

Risk factors that you cannot control
  • Age: Men over 45 and women over 55 are at increased risk.
  • Gender: Men have greater risk earlier in life, but by age 65, a woman’s risk is almost equal.
  • Race: American Indians, African Americans, and Hispanics are at higher risk for developing heart disease.
Risk factors that you can control
  • Tobacco: Causing more than 440,000 deaths each year, smoking tops the list of major risk factors associated with the development of heart disease. If you smoke, you are twice as likely to have a heart attack and less likely to survive it.
  • Physical Activity: Active people have about half the risk of developing heart disease as individuals who are sedentary. Low levels of physical activity can increase your chance of developing other heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol.
  • Weight: Excess weight increases how hard your heart has to work. It can also increase cholesterol, blood pressure and your risk of developing diabetes. If you need to lose weight, start by setting a goal – even losing just 10 percent of your body weight provides significant benefits to the health of your heart.
  • High cholesterol: Cholesterol is essential to life. Every cell in your body requires cholesterol in its membranes. High cholesterol is a condition in which excess amounts of cholesterol are found in the blood. This excess can build up and damage your arteries, which can lead to heart attack and stroke.
  • High blood pressure: Excess pressure weakens blood vessel walls, forcing the heart to pump harder. Over time high blood pressure can damage your heart and its arteries.
  • Diabetes: People with diabetes have an increased risk for coronary artery disease, heart attack and stroke. By managing diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, people with diabetes can reduce their risk.
  • Stress: Researchers have noted a relationship between heart attack and a person’s stress and behavior habits. Managing stress can also help you manage other risk factors.
Know your numbers

Understanding and managing blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes are critical to the health of your heart. The American Heart Association releases new guidelines regularly for preventing and treating heart disease and stroke. The latest guidelines, released in November 2013, focus on four important areas:

  • Assessment of your risk
  • Weight management
  • Cholesterol
  • Lifestyle

Additional resources from the American Heart Association:

More about the New Guidelines

Cholesterol: Myth versus Truth

What Guidelines Mean to You Infographic

Read more about what your cholesterol levels mean

Blood pressure

High blood pressure (hypertension) is usually called a silent killer, since it typically presents no symptoms and can be deadly. It can be managed with the help of your health care team and improvement of lifestyle habits.

Blood Pressure Categories:

Desired Prehypertension High
Systolic BP lower than 120 mm/Hg Systolic BP 120 mm/Hg to 129 mm/Hg Systolic BP 140 mm/Hg or higher
Diastolic BP lower than 80 mm/Hg Diastolic BP 80 mm/Hg to 89 mm/Hg Diastolic BP 90 mm/Hg or higher

Read more about your blood pressure

One step at a time!

Managing these controllable risk factors is critical for the health of your heart. The good news is that many of the same lifestyle behaviors will provide you benefits across all risk areas. For example, being active lowers LDL (bad cholesterol), raises HDL (good cholesterol), lowers blood pressure and can help you manage your weight. A little bit goes a long way in the prevention of heart disease.