Understanding the Cardiovascular System and Its DiseasesThe heart is a strong, muscular pump that is slightly larger than your fist. It pumps blood continuously through the vascular system -- the network of elastic tubes, known as blood vessels, that allows blood to flow throughout your body. Blood vessels include arteries, capillaries, and veins. Arteries and capillaries carry oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to all parts of the body. Veins carry blood that has been depleted of oxygen and nutrients back to the heart and lungs.
Heart and blood vessel problems do not happen quickly. Over time, the arteries that bring blood to the heart and brain can become blocked from a buildup of cells, fat, and cholesterol (called plaque). Blockages in the arteries or blood clots can cause a person to have a heart attack or a stroke.
Many problems can occur in the heart or blood vessels (known as cardiovascular disease). Some common diseases include:
- Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
- Coronary heart disease (referred to by most people as just "heart disease")
- Heart attack
- High blood pressure (also known as hypertension)
- Congestive heart failure.
More than 70 million Americans (almost one-fourth of the population) have some form of cardiovascular disease, with high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke being the most common. Cardiovascular disease accounts for nearly 40 percent of deaths each year. Heart disease is the most common cause of death, and stroke is the third most common cause of death.
(Click Cardiovascular Disease Types for information.)