Understanding Cardiovascular Disease
Learn to recognize a heart attack and act quickly when you notice the warning signs. Call 9-1-1 immediately if you experience symptoms!
What is Heart Disease?
Heart and blood vessel disease—also called cardiovascular disease—refers to problems with arteries. Arteries are the blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the rest of the body.
Blood vessel disease is most common in the arteries leading to the heart (coronary arteries), brain (carotid arteries), and legs (peripheral arteries). Almost any artery in the body can develop problems, though.
Artery problems develop over time when plaque—a combination of blood cholesterol, fat and cells—builds up on the inside walls of arteries. Plaque makes arteries less flexible—a condition called atherosclerosis or "hardening of the arteries." Also, blood clots (thrombi) can form and stick to the plaque.
Plaque and/or blood clots can narrow an artery's blood-flow channel. When this happens, blood flow slows down. The part(s) of the body "fed" by narrowed arteries may not get enough oxygen-rich blood.
Figure A shows a normal artery with normal blood flow. Figure B shows an artery with plaque buildup. Plaque narrows the arteries and reduces blood flow to your heart muscle. It also makes it more likely that blood clots will form in your arteries. Blood clots can partially or completely block blood flow.
Narrowed arteries can become blocked in several ways. Plaque and/or blood clots can build up and completely block blood flow through an artery. Also, pieces of plaque and/or blood clots can break off the artery wall and get lodged in narrowed sections of the artery—or in any small-diameter artery. Blocked arteries prevent oxygen-rich blood from flowing where it's needed. This can cause:
- Heart attack — When a coronary artery (to the heart) is blocked.
- Stroke — When a carotid artery (in the neck) or an artery in the brain is blocked.
- Leg pain and/or numbness – When a leg artery is blocked.The good news is there are many things you can do to reduce your chances of developing heart and blood vessel disease. Learn about the risk factors for heart & blood vessel disease, and what you can do about them.