Cardiovascular disease

Cardiovascular disease killed more people than anything else on the planet every year for the last 15 years, and it is increasing. Worldwide, one in every three deaths is caused by heart disease. The healthcare costs are enormous (over €700 billion annually worldwide) and the social burden due to premature deaths and reduced quality of life is tremendous. It is a major public health challenge that feeds on our habits of high-calorie food ingestion, sedentary behavior, smoking, and drinking. Any of these can trigger disorders that increase the risk of heart disease.

Cardiovascular disease is a general term for a set of conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels, and include high blood pressure (hypertension), stroke, heart attack, and atherosclerosis, which is the accumulation of fat deposits in the arteries.

Common cardiovascular diseases

Heart attack is one of the most common causes of death from cardiovascular diseases and is usually due to another condition called atherosclerosis. It happens when the blood supply to the heart is blocked. Although a heart attack may not be fatal, it is likely to damage the heart and cause a severe reduction in quality of life.

Besides causing heart attack, atherosclerosis can also cause stroke and hypertension. Atherosclerosis happens over a period of time, where the arteries may become so narrow that they cannot deliver enough blood to the heart.

Another event that frequently leads to death is called cardiac arrest. Different from a heart attack, cardiac arrest is an electrical problem that makes the heart malfunction and suddenly stops. If the victim does not receive immediate help, death occurs within minutes.

High blood pressure (hypertension) is a condition that affects 1 in 4 people in the world. Although you may not feel or notice high blood pressure, it greatly increases your risk to develop other cardiovascular diseases, such as stroke. To know if you have high blood pressure, have it measured by a nurse or doctor. The earlier you find out, the better chances to treat it and prevent other cardiovascular diseases. There are many risk factors associated with hypertension, including age (although it can also affect children), smoking, unhealthy diet, and physical inactivity. It can also be related to other health conditions, such as diabetes and obesity.

Heart failure is a chronic condition that significantly reduces the quality of life. In heart failure, the heart can’t pump blood adequately to meet the body’s needs. The most common cause of this condition is damage to the heart, for example, a heart attack.

Risk factors

Cardiovascular disease can affect anyone, at any age, including children. Most cardiovascular diseases can be prevented by decreasing behavioral risk factors. The risk factors are often interrelated and rarely occur alone. Non-modifiable risk factors include increasing age, genetic factors, and ethnic background (Asians and Blacks are at increased risk compared to Whites, for example).

However, most risk factors are related to lifestyle and these can be modified. The most important behavioral risk factors for cardiovascular disease are physical inactivity, unhealthy diet, and tobacco use. Many cases of cardiovascular disease can be prevented by altering these risk factors.

Diabetes is another strong factor that increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, including atherosclerosis. Unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, and obesity all increase the risk to develop type 2 diabetes.

Due to genetic factors, women over 65 are at more risk to develop hypertension, but until the age of 45, men are more likely to have hypertension. Additionally, there is a direct correlation between body weight and high blood pressure. Physical inactivity and an unhealthy diet also increase your risk, and smoking and even stress may contribute to hypertension.

Modifiable (blue) and non-modifiable (red) risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Modifiable (blue) and non-modifiable (red) risk factors for cardiovascular disease.


How to protect your heart

Although it is not possible to change all risk factors, you can change behavioral ones. Here are a few tips on how to control those risk factors and protect your heart:

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  • A healthy diet is low in sugar and saturated fats but is rich in fibers from fruits and vegetables. It includes whole grains, nuts, and white meat, such as chicken and fish.
  • Be physically active: exercise regularly, at least twice a week, either aerobic or strength training.
  • Avoid tobacco.

Having a healthy diet will help you manage weight, which will help maintain a healthy heart. A healthy diet doesn’t mean that you cannot eat red meat, sugar or fried foods. You can still eat these, but with moderation and in lesser amounts. Type 2 diabetes can be managed and even prevented by having a healthy diet.

Even if you don’t exercise regularly, you may be physically active. Physical activity includes playing sports, playing outdoor games, taking the stairs, riding a bike, walking regularly, and doing some household chores. It is never too late to start exercising! Being physically active will reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease and improve your overall health. If you have not exercised in a long time, see your clinician to check your heart and ask for orientation on an adequate type of exercise and intensity.

If you smoke, be aware that you are increasing not only your risk to develop cardiovascular disease, but also increasing the risk of everyone around. Many non-smokers, including children, suffer or even die from second-hand tobacco smoke. Stop smoking will reduce your chances of having cardiovascular disease, and the sooner you stop, the sooner you will reduce your risk.


The role of research

To discover novel diagnostic tools and develop new treatments, understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying cardiovascular disease is essential. Such knowledge can advance personalized medicine, where interventions are tailored to the individual patient, potentially improving the lives of millions of people.

One way to promote this is by studying specific types of biological molecules. Cardiolinc focuses its research on the set of different regulatory RNAs.

What are regulatory RNAs and what is the link with cardiovascular disease?

Author: Clarissa Pedrosa da C. Gomes