Cardiovascular disease

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a general term for conditions affecting the heart or blood vessels.

It’s usually associated with a build-up of fatty deposits inside the arteries (atherosclerosis) and an increased risk of blood clots.

It can also be associated with damage to arteries in organs such as the brain, heart, kidneys, and eyes.

CVD is one of the leading causes of death and disability in the UK, but a healthy lifestyle can largely prevent it.

Many different types of CVD. 4 of the main types are described on this page.

Coronary heart disease

Coronary heart disease occurs when the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle is blocked or reduced.

This puts an increased strain on the heart and can lead to the following:

  • angina – chest pain caused by restricted blood flow to the heart muscle
  • heart attacks – 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

Strokes and TIAs

A stroke is when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off, which can cause brain damage and possibly death.

A transient ischaemic attack (also called a TIA or “mini-stroke”) is similar, but the blood flow to the brain is only temporarily disrupted.

The main symptoms of a stroke or TIA can be remembered with the word FAST, which stands for:

  • Face – the face may have drooped on one side, the person may be unable to smile, or their mouth or eye may have dropped.
  • Arms – the person may not be able to lift both arms and keep them there because of arm weakness or numbness in one arm.
  • Speech – their speech may be slurred or garbled, they may not be able to talk at all, or they may not be able to understand what you are saying to them.
  • Time – it’s time to dial 999 immediately if you see any of these signs or symptoms.

Peripheral arterial disease

Peripheral arterial disease occurs when there’s a blockage in the arteries to the limbs, usually the legs.

This can cause:

  • dull or cramping leg pain, which is worse when walking and gets better with rest
  • hair loss on the legs and feet
  • numbness or weakness in the legs
  • persistent ulcers (open sores) on the feet and legs

Aortic disease

Aortic diseases are a group of conditions affecting the aorta. This is the largest blood vessel in the body, carrying blood from the heart to the rest.

An aortic aneurysm is one of the most common aortic diseases, where the aorta becomes weakened and bulges outwards.

This doesn’t usually have any symptoms, but there’s a chance it could burst and cause life-threatening bleeding.

The exact cause of CVD isn’t clear, but many things can increase your risk of getting it. These are called “risk factors.”

The more risk factors you have, the greater your chances of developing CVD. If you’re over 40, you should be checked every 5 years by your doctor.

Part of this check involves assessing your individual CVD risk and advising you how to reduce it if necessary.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure (hypertension) is one of the most important risk factors for CVD. If your blood pressure is too high, it can damage your blood vessels.


Smoking and other tobacco use is also a significant risk factor for CVD. The harmful substances in tobacco can damage and narrow your blood vessels.

High cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in the blood. If you have high cholesterol, it can cause your blood vessels to narrow and increase your risk of developing a blood clot.


Diabetes is a lifelong condition that causes your blood sugar level to become too high.

High blood sugar levels can damage the blood vessels, making them more likely to become narrowed.

Many people with type 2 diabetes are also overweight or obese, which is also a risk factor for CVD.


If you don’t exercise regularly, it’s more likely that you’ll have high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and be overweight. All of these are risk factors for CVD.

Exercising regularly will help keep your heart healthy. Exercise can also help you maintain a healthy weight when combined with a healthy diet.

Being overweight or obese

Being overweight or obese increases your risk of developing diabetes and high blood pressure, both of which are risk factors for CVD.

You’re at an increased risk of CVD if:

  • your body mass index (BMI) is 25 or above – use the BMI healthy weight calculator to work out your BMI
  • you’re a man with a waist measurement of 94cm (about 37 inches) or more, or a woman with a waist measurement of 80cm (about 31.5 inches) or more

Family history of CVD

If you have a family history of CVD, your risk of developing it increases.

You’re considered to have a family history of CVD if either:

  • your father or brother was diagnosed with CVD before they were 55
  • your mother or sister was diagnosed with CVD before they were 65

Tell your doctor or nurse if you have a family history of CVD. They may suggest checking your blood pressure and cholesterol level.

Ethnic background

People of south Asian and Black African or African Caribbean background have an increased risk of getting CVD.

This is because people from these backgrounds are more likely to have other risk factors for CVD, such as high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes.

Other risk factors

Other factors that affect your risk of developing CVD include:

  • age – CVD is most common in people over 50, and your risk of developing it increases as you get older
  • gender – men are more likely to develop CVD at an earlier age than women
  • diet – an unhealthy diet can lead to high cholesterol and high blood pressure
  • alcohol – excessive alcohol consumption can also increase your cholesterol and blood pressure levels and contribute to weight gain

Types of CVD

A healthy lifestyle can lower your risk of CVD. If you already have CVD, staying as healthy as possible can reduce the chances of it worsening.

Stop smoking

If you smoke, you should try to give up as soon as possible. 

Your doctor can also provide you with advice and support. They can also prescribe medication to help you quit.

Have a balanced diet

A healthy, balanced diet is recommended for a healthy heart.

A balanced diet includes:

  • low levels of saturated fat – try to include healthier sources of fat, such as oily fish, nuts and seeds, and olive oil, and avoid unhealthy fats, such as fatty cuts of meat, lard, cream, cakes, and biscuits
  • low levels of salt – aim for less than 6g (0.2oz or 1 teaspoon) a day
  • low levels of sugar
  • plenty of fiber and wholegrain foods
  • plenty of fruit and vegetables – eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day

Exercise regularly

Adults are advised to do at least 150 minutes of moderate activity a week, such as cycling or brisk walking.

If you find it difficult to do this, start at a level you feel comfortable with and gradually increase the duration and intensity of your activity as your fitness improves.

Visit your doctor for a health check if you haven’t exercised before, or you’re returning to exercise after a long break.

Maintain a healthy weight

If you’re overweight or obese, a combination of regular exercise and a healthy diet can help you lose weight.

If you’re struggling to lose weight, your doctor or healthcare nurse can help you develop a weight loss plan and recommend services in your area.

Cut down on alcohol

If you drink alcohol, try not to exceed the recommended limit of 14 alcohol units a week for men and women.

If you do drink this much, you should aim to spread your drinking over 3 days or more.

A unit of alcohol is equivalent to half a pint of normal-strength lager or a single measure (25ml) of spirits. A small glass of wine (125ml) is about 1.5 units.

Your doctor can give you help and advice if you’re finding it difficult to reduce your drinking.


If you have a particularly high risk of developing CVD due to high blood cholesterol, your GP may recommend taking statins to reduce your risk.