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Diseases of the Heart

There are many types of heart and blood vessel disease. More than 60 million people in the United States have one or more of them. In 1993, almost 1 million people died from diseases of the heart and blood vessels – more that 42 percent of all deaths in the United States. Yet, many of these diseases can be prevented. Here are some brief summaries of the leading diseases of the heart and blood vessels:

Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) occurs when deposits of lipid (fat) material accumulate on the walls of large to medium-sized arteries. Eventually, these plaque deposits will thicken the artery walls, making them hard, brittle and prone to breaking. Blood flow becomes restricted and many times clots will form around these blocked areas. This can cause heart attacks and strokes.

Hypertension (high blood pressure) is the diagnosis when the pressure of the blood moving through your arteries is consistently above the normal range. High blood pressure is dangerous because it makes the heart work too hard and contributes to atherosclerosis. A consistently elevated pressure of 140 or higher systolic and/or 90 or higher diastolic indicates hypertension. If your blood pressure is between 120/80 mmHg and 139/89 mmHg, then you have prehypertension. This means that you don't have high blood pressure now but are likely to develop it in the future. Most people cannot tell they have high blood pressure because there are no signs or symptoms. That is why it is important to see a physician every year. There are a number of lifestyle changes and medications that help you to control your hypertension.

Heart attacks occur when blood flow to part of the heart is blocked, often by a blood clot. If the clot completely cuts off the blood flow, the part of the heart muscle supplied by that artery begins to die.

Heart failure is a general term that means your heart is not pumping blood as well as it should be. This results in the body not getting the oxygen and nutrients it needs. See your health care provider if you notice swelling in feet, ankles and legs (called edema) or if fluid builds up in the lungs (called pulmonary congestion).

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the most common form of heart disease. It is characterized by a reduction in the blood supply to the heart muscle caused by narrowing or blockage of the coronary arteries. It can present as myocardial infarction (heart attack), angina pectoris (chest pain) or atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries.

Heart Disease Risk Factors

Risk factors are behaviors or conditions that increase a person’s chances of developing a disease. Many of the risk factors for heart disease are within a person’s control.

High blood pressure
High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease. It is often preceded by prehypertension: the systolic (upper number) is greater than 120 and the diastolic (lower number) is greater than 80.

High cholesterol
Cholesterol is a natural substance found in all living tissue. When too much of it builds up in arteries, however, it can be dangerous.

Tobacco use
Tobacco use is the No. 1 preventable cause of heart disease.

Physical inactivity
Physical activity can help you to control blood pressure and to reduce cholesterol levels. It also aids in controlling and maintaining a healthy weight.

Poor nutrition
Children and adults need to control the amount of fat, particularly saturated fat, in their diets. They also should increase the number of servings of fruits and vegetables they eat each day.

The combination of physical inactivity and poor nutrition has given rise to an alarming increase in the obesity rate in Illinois and the rest of the United States. In addition to heart disease, being overweight can cause a number of other health problems.

This disease affects the body’s ability to produce and/or use insulin, a hormone that allows cells to absorb glucose, the body’s main source of fuel. If too little (or no) insulin is produced, glucose builds up in the blood and can reach dangerous levels. Diabetes can seriously harm blood vessels throughout the body, including those in the heart, which increases the risks of heart disease. High blood glucose levels cause hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), thicken capillary walls and make blood stickier — all significant risk factors for heart disease.

Fact Sheets

Cardiovascular Disease

Cardiovascular Disease Deaths Among African Americans

Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors



Heart Attack

Heart Disease

High Blood Pressure

Know Your Numbers


Physical Activity


Warnings Fact Sheet


Who is at Risk?

Can I Reduce My Risk?

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