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The term cardiovascular disease (CVD) is used to describe many different conditions affecting the heart and blood vessels. The most common and serious types of CVD in Australia are coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke and heart failure.

The main underlying cause of CVD is a process known as atherosclerosis. This is a condition where abnormal deposits of fat, cholesterol and other substances build up in the inner lining of the arteries to form plaque, which causes the artery walls to lose their elasticity. Atherosclerosis is most serious when it leads to reduced or blocked blood supply to the heart (causing angina or heart attack) or to the brain (causing stroke). The process leading to atherosclerosis is slow and complex, often starting in childhood and progressing with age.

CVD is common and preventable in many cases, as a number of its risk factors are modifiable, such as overweight and obesity, tobacco smoking, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, insufficient physical activity, poor nutrition and diabetes.

Common types of CVD in Australia

Coronary heart disease

Coronary heart disease (CHD), or ischaemic heart disease, is the most common form of CVD. There are two major clinical forms of CHD—heart attack (often known as acute myocardial infarction or AMI) and angina.

  • A heart attack is a life-threatening event that occurs when a blood vessel supplying the heart itself is suddenly blocked, causing damage to the heart muscle and its functions.
  • Angina is a chronic condition in which short episodes of chest pain can occur periodically when the heart has a temporary deficiency in its blood supply. Angina is not generally life-threatening on its own, although unstable angina—the most serious and less predictable form—is medically treated in a similar manner to a heart attack.

Heart attacks and unstable angina are considered to be part of a continuum of acute coronary heart diseases known as acute coronary syndrome.

Stroke

Stroke occurs when an artery supplying blood to the brain either suddenly becomes blocked (known as ischaemic stroke) or begins to bleed (known as haemorrhagic stroke). Either may result in part of the brain dying, leading to sudden impairment that can affect a range of functions. Stroke often causes paralysis of parts of the body normally controlled by the area affected by the stroke, or speech problems and other symptoms, such as difficulties swallowing, vision and thinking. Stroke is often fatal.

Hypertensive disease

Hypertensive disease occurs when high blood pressure is severe or prolonged enough to cause damage to the heart or other organs. It can lead to coronary heart disease, heart failure and cardiomyopathy, stroke and chronic kidney disease.

Heart failure and cardiomyopathy

Heart failure occurs when the heart begins to function less effectively in its role of pumping blood around the body. Although it can occur suddenly, it usually develops over many years, as the heart gradually becomes weaker and works less effectively. Heart failure can result from a variety of diseases and conditions that impair or overload the heart, such as heart attack, high blood pressure, a damaged heart valve or primary heart muscle weakness (known as cardiomyopathy).

Cardiomyopathy is a condition in which there is direct or widespread damage to the heart muscle, weakening it. The condition can be due to various causes such as viral infections and severe alcohol abuse. It can lead to an enlarged, thickened and dilated heart as well as heart failure.

Peripheral vascular disease

Peripheral vascular disease refers to diseases of the arteries outside the heart and brain. It occurs when fatty deposits build up in the inner walls of these arteries and affect blood circulation to the arteries that supply blood to the body's peripheries, mainly in the arteries leading to the legs and feet. It ranges from asymptomatic disease, through to pain on walking, to pain at rest and limb-threatening reduced blood supply that can lead to amputation.

Acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease

Acute rheumatic fever (ARF) is a delayed complication of an untreated throat infection from Group A Streptococcus bacteria. Inflammation caused by ARF can manifest as permanent damage to the heart muscle or heart valves and reduce the ability of the heart to pump blood effectively around the body, known as rheumatic heart disease.

Severe forms of the disease can result in serious incapacity or even death. While these diseases are largely uncommon in the general population, Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living in remote areas have one of the highest rates in the world.

Congenital heart disease

Congenital heart disease is any disorder of the heart, heart valves or major blood vessels that is present at birth. It is one of the leading causes of death and hospitalisation in the first year of life. Children with serious congenital heart disease are generally treated with surgery in infancy or early childhood. Patients often need lifelong specialised cardiac care.