This article was last reviewed on
This article waslast modified on 7 October 2020.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a general term used to describe disorders that can affect your heart (cardio) and/or your blood circulation network of arteries and veins (vascular).

Most cardiovascular diseases reflect chronic conditions – conditions that develop or persist over a long period of time. However, sometimes the outcome of cardiovascular disease may be an acute event such as a heart attack or a stroke that occurs suddenly when a vessel supplying blood to the heart or brain becomes blocked.

The most popular use of the term CVD is to refer to diseases that are associated with atherosclerosis - the build up of fatty deposits in the inner walls of blood vessels. Some of the diseases due to atherosclerosis are:

  • Coronary artery disease (CAD) causing coronary heart disease (CHD) – disease of the blood vessels supplying the heart that may lead to:
  •  Cerebrovascular disease – disease of the blood vessels supplying the brain that may lead to:
    • Transient ischaemic attack (TIA) or “mini-stroke”
    • Stroke also known as brain attack or brain infarction
  • Peripheral arterial disease – disease of blood vessels supplying the arms or, most often, the legs that can lead to:
    • Claudication - partially obstructed blood flow in arteries causing pain on exercise
    • Aneurysm (localised bulging or enlargement) in the aorta or other blood vessels
    • Gangrene - death of tissue, for example of the toes, due to reduced blood supply

Diseases that can affect the heart and blood vessels which are not due to atherosclerosis are described in our Heart Disease and Vasculitis articles. They include:

  • Congenital heart disease – malformation of the heart structure during development before birth
  • Heart valve disease, congenital before birth or acquired later in life, disturbing normal blood flow
  • Cardiomyopathy – disease of the heart muscle
  • Myocarditis – inflammation of the heart muscle
  • Vasculitis – inflammation of arteries or veins
  • Venous thrombosis – development of  blood clots in veins
  • Thromboembolism – a venous clot that breaks free and blocks a blood vessel in another organ  

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 17.1 million people died of CVDs each year, representing a third of all global deaths. Over 80% of CVD deaths take place in low and middle income countries. As the leading cause of death worldwide, CVD is a focus of international interest.

CVDs due to atherosclerosis occur more frequently in people who are overweight, who smoke, who do not exercise, who have high blood pressure, who have high blood cholesterol (especially high “bad” cholesterol) and/or who have diabetes.  The way your doctor may use your lifestyle and the results of laboratory tests to assess your risk of CVD is described here.

Public health initiatives commended by WHO focus on decreasing deaths from CVD by encouraging people to:

  • Follow a healthy diet that includes fruit and vegetables and limits salt
  • Avoid smoking
  • Exercise for at least 30 minutes every day
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Have their blood pressure and blood cholesterol checked
  • If they are diabetic, maintain good control of their blood glucose
  • Seek medical help immediately a heart attack or stroke is suspected