Cardiovascular Disease: Scientific Research and Facts


According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease (CVD) is one of the leading causes of death internationally. Cardiovascular research shows that by 2030, more than 22 million people will die annually from CVD. Even if these diseases do not lead to death, they can cause disability and reduce people’s quality of life. There are a range of risk factors that increase the possibility of developing CVD, but you can prevent some of these risk factors and therefore can lower the risk 2

Whether you are at risk for CVD or simply want to prevent the onset, this article will explain everything you need to know.

Understanding cardiovascular disease

Cardiovascular disease refers to conditions that affect the heart or blood vessels. There are many different types of CVD but the four main types are: coronary heart disease, stroke and transient ischaemic attack, peripheral arterial disease, and aortic disease.3

Coronary heart disease occurs when fatty substances that have built up in the coronary arteries block blood flow to the heart. This increases the workload put on the heart, which can cause chest pain, heart attacks, and heart failure.3

A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off, which can lead to brain damage and even death. Similarly, a transient ischaemic attack, or TIA, is known as a ‘mini-stroke’ because the blood flow to the brain is only temporarily cut off. When looking out for a stroke or TIA, the main symptoms occur in the face, arms, and speech.3

Peripheral arterial disease involves a blockage in the arteries supplying blood to the limbs, mostly the legs. It does not always cause symptoms, but when it does they can include dull or cramping leg pain when walking, hair loss from the feet or legs, feeling weak or numb in the legs, and persistent sores on the legs or feet.3

Aortic diseases are diseases that affect the aorta, the large blood vessel leading from the heart to the rest of the body.3

Scientific research and facts

Causes of cardiovascular disease

The cause of CVD is unclear, but there are a range of risk factors that increase your chance of developing it. These risk factors include high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes, physical inactivity, obesity, ethnic background, old age, poor diet, high alcohol consumption, and a family history of CVD. Many of these risk factors tend to co-occur, which creates a greater risk for CVD.3

High blood pressure                          

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is one of the most common risk factors for CVD. It is known that around a third of people in the UK have high blood pressure, with many not even aware of it. Blood pressure is recorded using two numbers: the systolic blood pressure (the higher number) and diastolic blood pressure (the lower number). High blood pressure is 140/90 mmHg and above, or 150/90 mmHg and above if you are over 80. To maintain normal blood pressure levels, systolic blood pressure should be less than 120 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure should be below 80 mmHg.3

Chronic high blood pressure is detrimental to health because it puts more force on your organs. This increases the risk of life-threatening issues such as heart attacks, heart failure, coronary heart disease, peripheral arterial disease, kidney disease, and strokes. In fact, the American Heart Association states that around 50% of strokes and heart attacks are associated with high blood pressure.4

Scientists reviewing multiple studies found that lowering blood pressure was effective in reducing the risk for CVD and all-cause mortality.2


Smoking and vaping are significant risk factors for CVD, as the substances in tobacco can harm your heart as well as damage and narrow your blood vessels. In fact, according to the American Heart Association, out of all CVD risk factors, tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the US and across the globe. Moreover, nicotine raises blood pressure which is another risk factor for CVD.3,5

A study from 2017 found that, compared to non-smokers, regular smokers and former smokers were at an increased risk for CVD, with daily smokers having the highest risk.6


Diabetes is also a risk factor for CVD as high blood sugar levels can cause damage to the blood vessels, making them more likely to narrow.Furthermore, many people with type 2 diabetes are also obese or overweight, which is another risk factor. In general, adults with diabetes have a higher risk of death from CVD than adults who do not have diabetes. In fact, cardiovascular research found that people with diabetes were 2.9 times more likely to have reported having CVD compared to those without diabetes.3,6


Being obese or overweight increases your risk of high blood pressure and diabetes. These are both risk factors for CVD. Factors that increase your risk for CVD are:

  • A body mass index (BMI) of 25 or above
  • For men, a waist measurement of 94cm (around 37 inches) or higher
  • For women, a waist measurement of 80cm (around 31.5 inches) or higher.3

High cholesterol

High cholesterol is usually caused by eating too much fatty food, inactivity, being overweight, drinking alcohol, and smoking. High cholesterol is the second most common CVD risk factor after being overweight or obese, and cardiovascular research showed that people with high levels of cholesterol were 2.7 times more likely to develop CVD compared to people with normal levels.6

Symptoms of cardiovascular disease

There are many different types of cardiovascular disease and therefore, symptoms can vary but the British Heart Foundation states that the most common symptoms are:1

  • Chest pain
  • Breathlessness
  • Painful, numb, or weak legs and arms
  • Swollen limbs
  • Fatigue
  • A very fast or slow heartbeat
  • Feeling dizzy, faint, or lightheaded

Treatment for cardiovascular disease

Treatment for CVD depends on your condition but the British Heart Foundation suggests that patients with CVD should be educated on lifestyle modifications that can prevent risk factors, medication, and more.1

Lifestyle changes             

A healthy lifestyle can greatly improve your symptoms and prevent your condition from worsening. This should include a healthy, balanced diet consisting of low levels of saturated fat, low salt, low sugar, high fibre, whole grain foods, and plenty of fruit and vegetables. A study from the Journal of Nutrition found that people whose diet closely matched this had a 23% lower risk of coronary heart disease and an 18% lower risk of diabetes.7

Exercising regularly is also a great treatment - the British Heart Foundation advises adults to do at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. This can help you to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. It is also advised to cut down on alcohol and avoid exceeding the recommended limit of 14 units a week. Smoking should also be stopped.1,3


Some medications may be prescribed depending on your condition. For example, if you have a high level of blood cholesterol, your doctor may prescribe you statins to reduce your risk of developing CVD. Statins can help lower the level of the “bad” form of cholesterol called LDLs in your blood.3

Heart surgery

One of the ways CVD is treated is through heart valve surgery. Our valves open and close to keep blood flowing in the right direction. Problems with them can block blood flow or cause blood to leak backwards, putting extra strain on the heart as it must pump harder in order to push blood through the valves. This can lead to serious and life-threatening conditions such as heart failure. Surgery options include valve repair or valve replacement.8

A pacemaker or an ICD

Another CVD treatment option is a device such as a pacemaker or an ICD. They are small electrical implants that detect abnormal heart rhythms and correct them by sending electrical signals to regulate the heartbeat. An ICD is usually used for more dangerous conditions that can cause cardiac arrest.1

Prevention of cardiovascular disease

Primary prevention for CVD includes a range of methods similar to treatment. Primary prevention refers to the steps you can take to prevent the onset of CVD. This includes:3

  • A healthy diet
  • Regular exercise
  • Limiting alcohol intake
  • Not smoking
  • Managing LDL cholesterol levels and blood pressure
  • Improving sleep health

It is recommended that all patients aged 20 and over are educated on CVD risk factors. Experts suggest that you should have your risk factors evaluated every 4-6 years.9

Primary prevention is especially important for those with risk factors that cannot be modified, such as a family history of CVD.9


What are the risk factors that influence cardiovascular disease?

As mentioned before, there are a range of risk factors that increase your risk for CVD. Other risk factors include:3

  • Age – over 50s have an increased risk of CVD, and your risk increases as you get older
  • Gender – men have a higher chance of developing CVD at an earlier age than women
  • Alcohol – excessive alcohol consumption can increase blood pressure, cholesterol levels and cause weight gain
  • Diet – an unhealthy diet high in fatty foods can lead to high cholesterol and high blood pressure
  • Ethnic background – in the UK, people with South Asian, Black African or African Caribbean heritage have an increased risk for CVD. This is because they are more likely to have high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes
  • Inactivity – lack of exercise

Does having cardiovascular disease increase my risk of having other conditions?

The risk factors for CVD can often co-occur, and can therefore escalate other conditions. These can include heart failure, pulmonary hypertension, cardiomyopathy and even mental health disorders.10

How is cardiovascular disease diagnosed?

Diagnosis of CVD depends on your symptoms and family history but they typically include a range of tests such as:1

  • Blood tests
  • Electrocardiograms (ECG)
  • Echocardiograms
  • Chest X-rays
  • MRI scans
  • CT scans

When should I see my doctor?

If you experience any symptoms of CVD you should see your primary care doctor immediately so you can get the treatment you need. It is best to see your doctor earlier rather than later to prevent the disease from progressing.


Overall, CVD is a serious, life-threatening condition that affects millions of people around the world. There are no clear causes of CVD but common risk factors include high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, diabetes, obesity and smoking. These risk factors can contribute to a range of serious conditions such as coronary heart disease, heart attack, stroke, heart failure and peripheral arterial disease. 

Primary prevention of CVD includes eating a healthy diet, regular exercise, limiting alcohol intake and not smoking. However, if CVD is diagnosed then a range of treatments are recommended such as lifestyle modifications, medication or possibly heart surgery. In order to prevent the development of CVD, it is extremely important to follow a healthy lifestyle and maintain normal blood pressure and LDL cholesterol levels. In other words, a healthier lifestyle leads to a longer, healthier life.


  1. Cardiovascular heart disease [Internet]. British Heart Foundation. [cited 2023 Jan 13]. Available from: 
  2. Ruan Y, Guo Y, Zheng Y, Huang Z, Sun S, Kowal P, et al. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) and associated risk factors among older adults in six low-and middle-income countries: results from SAGE Wave 1. BMC Public Health [Internet]. 2018 Dec [cited 2023 Jan 13];18(1):778. Available from: 
  3. Cardiovascular disease [Internet]. NHS. 2017 [cited 2023 Jan 13]. Available from: 
  4. High blood pressure [Internet]. British Heart Foundation. [cited 2023 Jan 13]. Available from: 
  5. Benjamin EJ, Muntner P, Alonso A, Bittencourt MS, Callaway CW, Carson AP, et al. Heart disease and stroke statistics—2019 update: a report from the american heart association. Circulation [Internet]. 2019 Mar 5 [cited 2023 Jan 13];139(10). Available from: 
  6. Tran DMT, Lekhak N, Gutierrez K, Moonie S. Risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease among adult Nevadans. PLOS ONE [Internet]. 2021 Feb 17 [cited 2023 Jan 13];16(2):e0247105. Available from: 
  7. Chiuve SE, Fung TT, Rimm EB, Hu FB, McCullough ML, Wang M, et al. Alternative dietary indices both strongly predict risk of chronic disease123. J Nutr [Internet]. 2012 Jun [cited 2023 Jan 13];142(6):1009–18. Available from: 
  8. Heart valve surgery [Internet]. British Heart Foundation. [cited 2023 Jan 13]. Available from: 
  9. Olvera Lopez E, Ballard BD, Jan A. Cardiovascular disease. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 [cited 2023 Jan 13]. Available from: 
  10. CDC. Other conditions related to heart disease [Internet]. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2022 [cited 2023 Jan 13]. Available from:
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Suad Mussa

Bachelor of Science – BSc, Biology. Queen Mary University of London

Suad Mussa is a biology graduate with a strong passion for medical writing and educating the public about health and wellbeing.

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