Fact sheet N°317
January 2011


Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs)



KEY FACTS


What are cardiovascular diseases?

Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) are a group of disorders of the heart and blood vessels and include:

Heart attacks and strokes are usually acute events and are mainly caused by a blockage that prevents blood from flowing to the heart or brain. The most common reason for this is a build-up of fatty deposits on the inner walls of the blood vessels that supply the heart or brain. Strokes can also be caused by bleeding from a blood vessel in the brain or from blood clots.

What are the risk factors for cardiovascular disease?

The most important behavioural risk factors of heart disease and stroke are unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and tobacco use. Behavioural risk factors are responsible for about 80% of coronary heart disease and cerebrovascular disease.

The effects of unhealthy diet and physical inactivity may show up in individuals as raised blood pressure, raised blood glucose, raised blood lipids, and overweight and obesity; these are called 'intermediate risk factors'.

There are also a number of underlying determinants of CVDs, or, if you like, "the causes of the causes". These are a reflection of the major forces driving social, economic and cultural change – globalization, urbanization, and population ageing. Other determinants of CVDs are poverty and stress.

What are common symptoms of cardiovascular diseases?

Symptoms of heart attacks and strokes

Often, there are no symptoms of the underlying disease of the blood vessels. A heart attack or stroke may be the first warning of underlying disease. Symptoms of a heart attack include:

In addition the person may experience difficulty in breathing or shortness of breath; feeling sick or vomiting; feeling light-headed or faint; breaking into a cold sweat; and becoming pale. Women are more likely to have shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

The most common symptom of a stroke is sudden weakness of the face, arm, or leg, most often on one side of the body. Other symptoms include sudden onset of: numbness of the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body; confusion, difficulty speaking or understanding speech; difficulty seeing with one or both eyes; difficulty walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination; severe headache with no known cause; and fainting or unconsciousness.

People experiencing these symptoms should seek medical care immediately.

What is rheumatic heart disease?

Rheumatic heart disease is caused by damage to the heart valves and heart muscle from the inflammation and scarring caused by rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever is caused by streptococcal bacteria, which usually begins as a sore throat or tonsillitis in children.

Rheumatic fever mostly affects children in developing countries, especially where poverty is widespread. Globally, almost 2% of deaths from cardiovascular diseases is related to rheumatic heart disease, while 42% of deaths from cardiovascular diseases is related to ischaemic heart disease, and 34% to cerebrovascular disease.

Symptoms of rheumatic heart disease

Treatment

Why are cardiovascular diseases a development issue in low- and middle-income countries?

How can the burden of cardiovascular diseases be reduced?

Heart disease and stroke can be prevented through healthy diet, regular physical activity and avoiding tobacco smoke. Individuals can reduce their risk of CVDs by engaging in regular physical activity, avoiding tobacco use and second-hand tobacco smoke, choosing a diet rich in fruit and vegetables and avoiding foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt, and maintaining a healthy body weight.

Comprehensive and integrated action is the means to prevent and control CVDs.

There are several treatment options available.

There is a need for increased government investment through national programmes aimed at prevention and control of CVDs and other noncommunicable diseases.

For more information contact:

WHO Media centre
Telephone: +41 22 791 2222
E-mail: mediainquiries@who.int

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