In simple terms cardiovascular disease (CVD) refers to any condition which affects the heart or blood vessels.
There are a number of cardiovascular conditions however cardiovascular disease usually results as a consequence of a build-up of fatty plaques in your arteries known as atherosclerosis. Plaque build-up causes the artery walls to thicken, stiffen and harden leading to an inhibition of blood flow through your arteries to your organs and tissues such as the brain, heart, kidneys and eyes.
This build-up of fatty deposits is known as atherosclerosis and is the most common cause of cardiovascular disease.
Cardiovascular disease is one of the main causes of death and disability in the UK. The British Heart Foundation reports “One in seven men and one in eleven women die from coronary heart disease. It’s responsible for nearly 70,000 deaths in the UK each year, an average of 190 people each day, or one death around every eight minutes. Most deaths from coronary heart disease are caused by a heart attack.
The American Heart Association lists cardiovascular disease as “the underlying cause of death, accounts for nearly 801,000 deaths in the US (approx. 1 of every 3 deaths in the US). About 2,200 Americans die of cardiovascular disease each day, an average of 1 death every 40 seconds. Cardiovascular diseases claim more lives each year than all forms of cancer and Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease combined. About 92.1 million American adults are living with some form of cardiovascular disease or the after-effects of stroke. Direct and indirect costs of cardiovascular diseases and stroke are estimated to total more than $316 billion; that includes both health expenditures and lost productivity.”
Types of Cardiovascular Disease
There are many types of CVD and symptoms vary depending on the type.
Some of the types are:
Coronary Heart Disease
Coronary heart disease occurs when the flow of blood to the heart is blocked or reduced through the build-up of fatty plaques putting an increased strain on the heart as it has to work harder to pump blood around the body. This increased strain can lead to a heart attack (where the blood flow to the heart muscle is suddenly blocked), heart failure (where the heart is unable to pump blood around the body properly) or angina (chest pain caused by restricted blood flow to the heart muscle).
There are a number of aortic diseases which affect the aorta, the largest artery in the body, which carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body.
One of the most common of the aortic diseases is an aortic aneurysm due to a weakened area in the upper part of the aorta which can result in bulging of the artery and a tear in the artery wall resulting in life-threatening bleeding. Aortic aneurysms often grow slowly and sometimes without symptoms which makes them difficult to detect.
Strokes and TIAs
Strokes are caused by a disruption of the blood supply to the brain. This can result from either a blockage (ischaemic stroke) or a rupture of a blood vessel (haemorrhagic stroke), which can potentially cause brain damage and possibly death.
A transient ischaemic attack (TIA) is similar to a stroke but in this case the blood flow to the brain is only temporarily interrupted and then goes back to normal.
Peripheral Arterial Disease
Peripheral artery disease occurs when there is a build-up of plaque in the arteries that carry blood to your head, organs, and limbs, leading to a blockage. This mostly commonly occurs in the legs and results in leg pain or numbness or weakness in the legs. Peripheral artery disease increases your risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and TIA.
What Causes Cardiovascular Disease?
Cardiovascular disease can be caused by a number of factors. Your risk of developing CVD increases if you:
- have a high blood cholesterol level
- have high blood pressure
- have diabetes
- smoke or drink excessively
- don’t take regular exercise
- are obese or overweight
If your family has a history of CVD, your risk of developing it also increases.
How to Prevent Cardiovascular Disease
There are a number of ways to prevent cardiovascular disease. If you already have CVD you can reduce your risk or the chances of it getting worse by beginning a healthy diet, exercising regularly, stopping smoking and reducing drinking.
A Balanced Diet
Low levels of saturated fat, salt and sugar, introducing fibre and wholegrain foods plus fruit and vegetables (at least 5 portions a day) make for a healthy, balanced diet which is recommended for a healthy heart.
The World Health Organisation estimated that in 2010, poor health, increased risk of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and 6.7 million deaths worldwide were attributed to inadequate fruit and vegetable consumption in 2010.
They have presented an e-library of ‘evidence for nutrition action’ where research indicates that “fruits and vegetables consumed as part of the daily diet can help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke… and the potassium provided by fruits and vegetables has been demonstrated to lower blood pressure. Dietary fibre may also help to lower blood pressure and together with phytochemicals such as plant sterols, flavonoids and other antioxidants may be important in modulating cholesterol and other biological processes that could reduce the risk of atherosclerosis (thickening of the arteries).”
Further compelling evidence that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can lower the risk of heart disease and stroke has been presented by the Harvard-based Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-up Study which included almost 110,000 men and women whose health and dietary habits were followed for 14 years.
This study reported “higher the average daily intake of fruits and vegetables, the lower the chances of developing cardiovascular disease. Compared with those in the lowest category of fruit and vegetable intake (less than 1.5 servings a day), those who averaged 8 or more servings a day were 30 percent less likely to have had a heart attack or stroke.”
They further qualified this by saying “although all fruits and vegetables likely contribute to this benefit, green leafy vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, and mustard greens; cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, and kale; and citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit (and their juices) make important contributions.”
On combining the Harvard research with other studies across Europe and the US “and looked at coronary heart disease and stroke separately, they found a similar protective effect: Individuals who ate more than 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per had roughly a 20 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease (He, F.J., et al., Increased consumption of fruit and vegetables is related to a reduced risk of coronary heart disease: meta-analysis of cohort studies. J Hum Hypertens, 2007. 21(9): p. 717-28.) and stroke, (He, F.J., C.A. Nowson, and G.A. MacGregor, Fruit and vegetable consumption and stroke: meta-analysis of cohort studies. Lancet, 2006. 367(9507): p. 320-6.) compared with individuals who ate less than 3 servings per day.”
A team at Imperial College, London, UK analysed 95 studies which included up to 2 million people, and assessed up to 43,000 cases of heart disease, 47,000 cases of stroke, 81,000 cases of cardiovascular disease, 112,000 cancer cases and 94,000 deaths. They looked at fruit and vegetable intake and found “that although even the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day reduced disease risk, the greatest benefit came from eating 800g a day (roughly equivalent to ten portions – one portion of fruit or vegetables if defined as 80g).” Their finds have been published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.
They concluded that “Fruit and vegetable intakes were associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and all-cause mortality. These results support public health recommendations to increase fruit and vegetable intake for the prevention of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and premature mortality.”
The team estimated approximately 7.8 million premature deaths worldwide could be potentially prevented every year if people ate 10 portions, or 800 g, of fruit and vegetables a day.
There are numerous other studies which show the benefits of fruit and vegetable intake:
- Critical review: vegetables and fruit in the prevention of chronic diseases
- Fruit and Vegetable Consumption and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies
- Fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies
- Fruit and vegetable intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: the Women’s Health Study
Fruit and Vegetables
It’s clear that a diet full of a variety of fruits and vegetables (which contain fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants) can help protect against heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. I have long recommended to my patients that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables can provide major health benefits. To find out more read my ebook.