Cardiovascular Disease: Am I at Risk?

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in both men and women in the United States. CVD is a general term for diseases that affect the heart and blood vessels. Many are caused by the buildup of a waxy substance called plaque in the arteries. Plaque can narrow and harden the arteries, a condition called atherosclerosis. It can take several decades for atherosclerosis to develop.

There are several types of CVD. The type of CVD depends on where atherosclerosis occurs in the body:

Coronary artery disease affects the arteries that supply the heart with blood.

Peripheral artery disease affects arteries that supply the other organs in your body.

Cerebrovascular disease affects arteries that supply the brain.

Atherosclerosis makes it hard for blood to move through the arteries. If blood flow is blocked in a coronary artery, it causes a heart attack. If this happens in an artery in the brain, it can cause an ischemic stroke. If an artery ruptures in the brain, it is called a hemorrhagic stroke.

Is CVD different for women and men?


Women have unique risk factors for CVD that men do not share. Women also get different types of CVD than men. CVD in men is more likely to cause heart disease. CVD in women is more likely to cause stroke. Stroke can cause lifelong disability in those who survive. Heart attack symptoms in women can be different from those in men. All women need to learn these symptoms and call 9-1-1 if they experience them.


What are the risk factors for CVD?


Some risk factors for CVD cannot be changed, whereas others can be altered by making lifestyle changes or treating certain medical conditions. Some of the risk factors include the following:

Age—As people age, their risk of CVD increases. Women see an increase in risk from ages 55 years to 64 years—when most have gone through menopause.

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High blood pressure—Blood pressure is the force the heart uses to move blood through the blood vessels to the organs and tissues. When blood pressure is too high (a condition called hypertension), it can damage the vessel walls. Damaged areas provide an ideal place for plaque to form. High blood pressure is a key risk factor for CVD in women and is the most common risk factor for stroke. Women should have their blood pressure checked regularly and get treatment if it is high. Lifestyle changes as well as medications are used to treat high blood pressure.

Abnormal triglyceride and cholesterol levels—Triglycerides are the most common form of fat in the body and provide energy to power the body’s activities. Cholesterol is a building block for cells and hormones. High-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good cholesterol”) helps prevent heart disease. It picks up cholesterol in the bloodstream and takes it to the liver where it is broken down. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad cholesterol”) can collect in the walls of blood vessels. Too much LDL in the walls of the arteries can trigger a response by the body’s immune system called inflammation. Inflammation can lead to a buildup of plaque in the arteries and eventually to atherosclerosis.

Diabetes mellitus—Diabetes causes high levels of glucose in the blood. Health problems, including CVD, can arise if blood glucose levels are not controlled. Risk factors for type 2 diabetes include being overweight, lack of exercise, abnormal cholesterol levels, and a higher-than-normal level of glucose in the blood (a condition called prediabetes).

Lifestyle factors—Smoking, lack of exercise, and being overweight are risk factors for CVD.

From ACOG’s Library

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