The heart and blood vessels (arteries, veins and capillaries) make up the body’s cardiovascular system. The beat of the heart pumps blood to the body. The heartbeat is controlled by rhythmic electrical conduction.
Equal parts mechanical pump, electrical system, chemical-hormonal target and molecular network, this vital organ makes cardiovascular disease a complex condition.
Cardiovascular disease refers to any disease of the heart (“cardio”) or blood vessels (“vascular”).
The heart can grow sick if the heart muscle becomes weak, affecting the ability to move blood throughout the body, or if it beats irregularly. The of cardiovascular disease include environmental factors, such as what you eat, whether you smoke, how much you exercise and where you live, as well as inherited (that is, genetic) factors, which are based on whether it runs in your family.
A heart attack, for example, can be the result of vascular disease – high blood pressure combined with atherosclerosis (rupturing of plaques of fatty materials on the inside walls of vessels) and arteriosclerosis (the thickening or hardening of arterial walls). During a heart attack, heart muscle cells die, and a scar forms.
Learn more about efforts to promote scarless healing
Post-heart attack, scars can short-circuit the electrical activity of a heart, producing arrhythmias.
People can live symptom-free with an arrhythmia for years. However, an arrhythmia can kill a person without warning (so-called “sudden cardiac death”).
One million people die annually from sudden cardiac death following a heart attack. Thousands more die from sudden cardiac death caused by an arrhythmia that pops up in a seemingly healthy heart – think of athletes who die suddenly.
Learn more about arrhythmia and sudden cardiac death.
Heart failure can result from various types of damage to the heart, including heart attack, high blood pressure, alcohol abuse, drug toxicity, genetic factors and other causes. This condition afflicts more than 5 million Americans and has a five-year survival rate of approximately 50%.
Many more people have heart attacks that do not lead to sudden cardiac death. These individuals can live anywhere from three months to 30 years with a damaged heart muscle.
Heart muscle cells do not regenerate. Thus, when the muscle itself is damaged, it goes through a degenerative process.
Along the way, the heart gets bigger, and its ability to pump gets get worse, like a high-powered engine that becomes less efficient as it runs out of fuel.
Find out more about vascular health and disease.