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Understanding cardiovascular disease

Cardiovascular disease is the broad term for problems with the heart and blood vessels. These problems are often due to atherosclerosis. This condition occurs when fat and cholesterol build up in blood vessel (artery) walls. This buildup is called plaque. Over time, plaque can narrow blood vessels and cause problems throughout the body. If an artery becomes blocked, it can lead to heart attack or stroke.

Types of Cardiovascular Disease

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the most common type of heart disease when plaque builds up in the arteries leading to the heart. CHD is also called coronary artery disease (CAD). When arteries narrow, the heart cannot get enough blood and oxygen. A blocked artery can cause a heart attack. Over time, CHD can weaken the heart muscle and cause heart failure or arrhythmias.

Heart failure occurs when the heart muscle becomes stiff or weak. It cannot pump out enough oxygen-rich blood, which causes symptoms throughout the body. The condition may affect only the right side or only the left side of the heart. More often, both sides of the heart are involved. High blood pressure and CAD are common causes of heart failure.

Arrhythmias are problems with heart rate (pulse) or heart rhythm. This happens when the heart's electrical system doesn't work properly. The heart may beat too fast, too slow, or unevenly. Certain heart problems, such as heart attack or heart failure can cause problems with the heart's electrical system. Some people are born with an arrhythmia.

Heart valve diseases occur when one or more of the four valves in the heart do not work properly. Blood can leak through the valve in the wrong direction (called regurgitation), or a valve may not open far enough and block blood flow (called stenosis). An unusual heart sound, called a heart murmur, is the most common symptom. Certain heart problems, such as heart attack, heart disease, or infection, can cause heart valve diseases. Some people are born with heart valve problems.

Peripheral artery disease occurs when the arteries to your legs and feet become narrow due to a buildup of plaque. Narrow arteries reduce or block blood flow. When blood and oxygen can't get to the legs, it can injure muscles, nerves, and other tissue.

High blood pressure (hypertension)is a cardiovascular disease that can lead to other problems, such as heart attack, heart failure, stroke, and kidney disease.

Stroke is caused by a lack of blood flow to the brain. This can happen because of a blood clot traveling to the blood vessels in the brain, or bleeding in the brain. Stoke has many of the same risk factors as heart disease.

Congenital heart disease is a problem with the heart's structure and function that is present at birth. Congenital heart disease can describe a number of different problems affecting the heart. It is the most common type of birth defect.


Goldman L. Approach to the patient with possible cardiovascular disease. In: Goldman L, Cooney KA, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 27th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2024:chap 39.

Newby DE, Grubb NR. Cardiology. In: Penman ID, Ralston SH, Strachan MWJ, Hobson RP, eds. Davidson's Principles and Practice of Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2023:chap 16.

Review Date 2/27/2024

Updated by: Thomas S. Metkus, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Surgery, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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