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Circulatory System Diseases: What You Should Know

Overview

The circulatory system is your heart and blood vessels, and it’s essential to keeping your body functioning. This finely tuned system carries oxygen, nutrients, electrolytes, and hormones throughout your body. Interruptions, blockage, or diseases that affect how your heart or blood vessels pump blood can cause complications such as heart disease or stroke.

These complications can arise due to a variety of factors, from genetics to lifestyle. Read on to learn more about the types circulatory system diseases and disorders and what their symptoms are.

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High blood pressure

High blood pressure

Blood pressure is the measurement of how much force is used to pump blood through your arteries. If you have high blood pressure, also called hypertension, it means the force is higher than it should be. High blood pressure can damage your heart and lead to heart disease, stroke, or kidney disease.

There are no symptoms with high blood pressure, which is why it’s often called “the silent killer.” For more information, read about hypertension.

CAD

Atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease

Atherosclerosis, also known as hardening of the arteries, occurs when plaque builds up on the walls of your arteries and eventually blocks blood flow. Plaque is made of cholesterol, fat, and calcium.

Coronary artery disease indicates that the plaque buildup in your arteries has caused the arteries to narrow and harden. Blood clots can further block the arteries.

Coronary artery disease develops over time. You can have it but not be aware of any symptoms. Other times, it may cause chest pain or the sensation of heaviness in the chest.

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Heart attacks

Heart attacks

A heart attack occurs when not enough blood reaches your heart. This can happen due to artery blockage. Heart attacks damage the heart muscle and are medical emergencies.

Call 911 or have someone else call if you have symptoms such as:

  • pain in the center or left side of the chest that feels like mild or severe discomfort, pressure, fullness, or squeezing
  • pain that radiates from the jaw, shoulder, arm, or across the back
  • shortness of breath
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • irregular heartbeat
  • unconsciousness

Women often experience heart attacks a little differently, with pressure or aching in their back and chest.

Learn more: Heart attack symptoms in men and women »

Heart failure

Heart failure

Sometimes called congestive heart failure, heart failure occurs when the heart muscle is weakened or damaged. It can no longer pump the volume of blood needed through the body. Heart failure normally occurs when you’ve had other heart problems, such as a heart attack or coronary artery disease.

Early symptoms of heart failure include fatigue, swelling in your ankles, and increased need to urinate at night. More severe symptoms include rapid breathing, chest pain, and fainting. For more on heart failure and how to recognize it, read about congestive heart failure.

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Strokes

Strokes

Strokes often occur when a blood clot blocks an artery in the brain and reduces the blood supply. They also can happen when a blood vessel in the brain breaks open. Both events keep blood and oxygen from reaching the brain. As a result, parts of the brain are likely to be damaged.

A stroke requires immediate medical attention. You can identify a stroke with a FAST test:

FAST stroke infographic

Read more: Everything you need to know about stroke symptoms »

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Aneurism

Abdominal aortic aneurisms

An abdominal aortic aneurism is a bulge in a weakened part of the aorta. The aorta is the largest blood vessel in your body. It carries blood from your heart to your abdomen, legs, and pelvis. If the aorta ruptures, it can cause heavy bleeding that’s life-threatening.

An abdominal aortic aneurism can stay small and never cause problems, in which case your doctor may take a “wait and watch” approach. When it becomes larger, you may experience pain in the abdomen or back. Large and rapidly growing abdominal aortic aneurisms are at greatest risk of rupturing. These require immediate attention.

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PAD

Peripheral artery disease

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is atherosclerosis that occurs in the extremities, usually in your legs. It reduces blood flow to your legs, as well as to your heart and brain. If you have PAD, you’re at greater risk of developing other circulatory system diseases.

Many people have no symptoms with PAD. But if you do, symptoms may include:

  • pain or cramping in the legs, especially when walking
  • coolness in legs or feet
  • sores that don’t heal on the feet or legs
  • redness or other changes in skin color

Risk factors

What increases your risk of circulatory system diseases?

Certain factors can increase your risk for circulatory system diseases.

Modifiable risk factors

Modifiable risk factors are factors that can be controlled, changed, or treated with lifestyle changes. These risk factors include:

  • lack of exercise
  • being overweight
  • smoking
  • overuse of alcohol
  • high levels of stress
  • poor diet

Managing certain conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes can also affect your risk.

Nonmodifiable risk factors

Risk factors that can’t be controlled, treated, or modified include:

  • advanced age
  • maleness
  • family history of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol
  • certain ethnicities

Men have a greater risk than premenopausal women for stroke. Also, some ethnicities have a higher risk for certain diseases than others.

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See a doctor

When to see your doctor

Talk to a doctor if you think you’re at risk of a circulatory system disease. They can help develop a treatment or management plan for your condition.

Heart attacks, strokes, and ruptured abdominal aortic aneurisms are life-threatening. When someone has the symptoms of these conditions, call 911 or take them to the emergency room immediately.

Outlook

Outlook

Not all risk factors for coronary artery disease are avoidable. But at least one quarter of all deaths due to heart disease and stroke are preventable, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Many conditions can be reversed or controlled with a combination of lifestyle changes and, in some cases, medication.

Prevention

Tips for circulatory system health

If you’re at risk for a circulatory system disease, work with your doctor to control conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. You can also take steps and make lifestyle changes to prevent these conditions.

Tips for circulatory health
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Exercise a minimum of 30 minutes a day, most days of the week.
  • Maintain a healthy, low-fat, low-cholesterol diet with more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Avoid trans fats and saturated fats, which are often found in processed foods and fast food.
  • Limit salt and alcohol intake.
  • Use relaxation and self-care to reduce stress.
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