What are cardiovascular diseases?
Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) are a group of disorders of the heart and blood vessels and they include:
– Coronary heart disease – disease of the blood vessels supplying the heart muscle;
– Cerebrovascular disease – disease of the blood vessels supplying the brain;
– Peripheral arterial disease – disease of blood vessels supplying the arms and legs;
– Deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism – blood clots in the leg veins, which can dislodge and move to the heart and lungs.
– 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 risk factors of heart disease and stroke are lifestyle: unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, tobacco use and harmful use of alcohol. Behavioural risk factors are responsible for about 80% of coronary heart disease and cerebrovascular disease (1).
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 “intermediate risks factors” can be measured in primary care facilities and indicate an increased risk of developing a heart attack, stroke, heart failure and other complications.
Cessation of tobacco use, reduction of salt in the diet, consuming fruits and vegetables, regular physical activity and avoiding harmful use of alcohol have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. The cardiovascular risk can also be reduced by preventing or treating hypertension, diabetes and raised blood lipids.
Policies that create conducive environments for making healthy choices affordable and available are essential for motivating people to adopt and sustain healthy behavior.
There are also a number of underlying determinants of CVDs, or “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 include poverty, stress and hereditary factors.
How can the burden of cardiovascular diseases be reduced?
Very cost effective interventions that are feasible to be implemented even in low resource settings have been identified by WHO for prevention and control of cardiovascular diseases.
Heart disease and stroke can be prevented through healthy lifestyles: 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 and avoiding the harmful use of alcohol.
People at high risk can be identified early in primary care, using simple tools such as specific risk prediction charts. If people are identified early, inexpensive treatment is available to prevent many heart attacks and strokes.
Survivors of a heart attack or stroke are at high risk of recurrences and at high risk of dying from them. The risk of a recurrence or death can be substantially lowered with a combination of drugs – statins to lower cholesterol, drugs to lower blood pressure, and aspirin.
In addition surgical operations are sometimes required to treat CVDs. They include coronary artery bypass, balloon angioplasty (where a small balloon-like device is threaded through an artery to open the blockage), valve repair and replacement, heart transplantation, and artificial heart operations.
Medical devices are required to treat some CVDs. Such devices include pacemakers, prosthetic valves, and patches for closing holes in the heart.
There is a need for increased government investment in prevention and early detection through national programmes aimed at prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases including CVDs.