Don't be 1 of the 4 million Australians affected each year by cardiovascular disease. Learn the symptoms and treatment in this guide.
Cardiovascular disease is an umbrella term applied to a long list of conditions affecting the heart and blood vessels. In Australia, coronary heart disease, stroke and heart failure are the most common forms of cardiovascular disease, and it’s estimated that more than four million Australians are affected by cardiovascular disease every year. In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death and disease in Australia.
What is cardiovascular disease?
Cardiovascular disease is a collective term that refers to diseases that affect the heart and blood vessels. Some of the more common conditions classified as cardiovascular disease include:
- Coronary heart disease
- Hypertensive disease
- Heart failure
- Congenital heart disease
- Peripheral vascular disease
- Rheumatic heart disease
The most common form of cardiovascular disease is coronary heart disease, which takes two major forms: heart attack and angina.
Heart attacks are life-threatening medical episodes caused by a blockage to a blood vessel that supplies the heart, while angina is characterised by short episodes of chest pain caused by a temporary deficiency in the heart’s blood supply.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death and disease in Australia – in 2014-15, an estimated 4.2 million Australian adults had one or more cardiovascular diseases.
There are several risk factors associated with the development of heart disease. Some of them are unmodifiable, including gender, ethnicity, genetic predisposition and age. With Australia’s ageing population and improved treatment methods, people with cardiovascular disease are living longer than ever before, resulting in an increased burden for Australia’s health system.
However, several of the risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease are lifestyle related, including smoking, insufficient exercise, poor diet and heavy alcohol consumption. People with high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and obesity also have an increased risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease.
Symptoms of cardiovascular disease
Because cardiovascular disease refers to a wide range of conditions, the symptoms of heart-related problems can vary. For some people, the first sign of any problem could even be a heart attack or other serious medical event, but there are some telltale signs and symptoms you should watch for that could indicate cardiovascular disease. These include:
- Struggling to catch your breath after moderate physical activity, for example climbing a flight of stairs
- Chest pain, tightness, pressure or discomfort
- Heart palpitations
- Pain in the upper torso, jaw and neck
- Dizziness or weakness, lightheadedness and fainting
- Heartburn and indigestion
- Nausea and vomiting
- Swelling in the feet, ankles, legs and abdomen
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms
Although symptoms vary widely from one type of cardiovascular disease to the next, they should not be ignored. If you are experiencing any symptoms that could indicate heart problems, seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Treatment of cardiovascular disease
Just as symptoms vary depending on the type of cardiovascular disease, so too do the treatment methods. Some of the options used to treat and manage heart disease include:
- CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). In life-threatening situations such as a severe heart attack, CPR can be used to bring a person back to life or stabilise them until medical help arrives.
- Lifestyle changes. One of the simplest ways to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and manage any health problem is to make some basic lifestyle changes. Eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, quitting smoking and minimising alcohol consumption can all have a positive effect, as can maintaining a healthy weight. Finding better ways to manage stress can also have many benefits for heart health.
- Medications. If lifestyle changes aren’t enough to improve your health, your doctor might prescribe medication to manage your heart condition. The exact medications prescribed vary depending on the type and severity of your cardiovascular disease but may include:
- Antiplatelet drugs (for example aspirin) to prevent the formation of blood clots
- Blood thinners to prevent blood clots and stop existing clots from growing bigger
- Antiarrhythmic drugs to treat abnormal heart rhythms
- Beta blockers to treat high blood pressure
- Diuretics to help your heart work more effectively
- ACE inhibitors to control high blood pressure and help the heart pump blood more effectively
- Medical procedures or surgery. If medications aren’t sufficient to control your condition, you may need to undergo surgery. The type of procedure your doctor may recommend varies depending on the type and severity of the disease and could include stents, angioplasty, bypass surgery, cardioversion, the installation of a pacemaker or even a heart transplant.
- Cardiovascular disease management programs. In Australia, Medicare subsidises a range of items used to treat chronic conditions such as heart disease. Eligible patients can get a referral from their GP to receive up to five allied health services, subsidised by Medicare, related to the treatment of their cardiovascular disease.
Cardiovascular disease stats
Statistics highlight just how serious a problem cardiovascular disease is in Australia:
- In 2015, 45,392 deaths were attributed to cardiovascular disease – that’s almost 30% of all deaths in Australia
- One Australian dies as a result of cardiovascular disease every 12 minutes
- Cardiovascular disease affects one in six Australians, or 4.2 million people
- In 2013-14, cardiovascular disease was the main cause of 480,548 hospitalisations and also contributed to a further 680,000 hospitalisations
- Around 54,000 Australians suffer a heart attack every year, with an estimated 400,000-plus Australians having suffered a heart attack at some stage of their lives
- Nine in 10 adult Australians have at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease, while one in four have three or more risk factors
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