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Cardiovascular disease glossary: heart jargon explained

Lesley Dobson / 28 January 2015

Confused by the terminology surrounding cardiovascular disease? Our simple guide will help.

Illustration of man jogging against heart symbol and graph
Cardiovascular disease causes around 160,000 deaths every year

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the medical term that covers all diseases involving the heart and circulation. These include coronary heart disease (CHD), heart attack (Myocardial Infarction or MI), atrial fibrillation, heart failure and stroke.

According to leading heart charity, the British Heart Foundation, an estimated seven million people in the UK live with CVD, and it causes around 160,000 deaths every year. That’s more than a quarter of all deaths in the UK, each year.

Of the different conditions grouped under CVD, Coronary Heart Disease is the one that affects most people. CHD causes around 73,000 deaths in the UK each year – more than any other cause of death. About 2.3 million people in the UK live with this condition.

If you have CHD it means that atheroma, a fatty material, is being deposited along the inner walls of your coronary arteries, narrowing them and slowing down the blood supply. If some of the deposit breaks off, forming a blood clot, it can stop the blood getting through your arteries to your heart, causing a heart attack.

Find out more about heart disease

When you have a heart attack it means that part of your heart muscle has been starved of blood and the oxygen it carries, and has been damaged. You need urgent medical treatment if this happens, to unblock the artery and stop further damage. If you think you’re having a heart attack call 999 straight away.

Symptoms of a heart attack include heavy, tight feelings or pain, in your chest. This can spread to your arms, up to your jaw, or to your back and stomach. Other symptoms include feeling light-head, dizzy or short of breath, and feeling sweaty and/or sick.

Atrial Fibrillation (AF) means that your heartbeat is irregular.  Often it is faster than normal, very irregular, causing an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia), and heart beats that vary in force – sometimes strong, and sometimes much weaker.

Causes of AF include high blood pressure, faulty heart valves, overactive thyroid gland, obesity and drinking too much alcohol, and caffeine. The symptoms to watch out for are feeling tired, short of breath, dizzy or faint, and being aware of your heart beat.

AF becomes more common with age. Around 1 in 200 of those aged 50-60 has this condition. For those aged over 80 the rate increases to about 1 in 10.

Find out more about Atrial Fibrillation

Heart failure is the term used when your heart isn’t able to pump blood around your body as well as it should. Common reasons for developing heart failure include having had a heart attack, having high blood pressure, and diseases affecting your heart muscle (known as cardiomyopathy).

Viral infections, an irregular heart rhythm, chemotherapy and over-use of alcohol and recreational drugs can also cause heart failure.

A stroke is often described as a brain attack – a heart attack in the brain. The most common cause of stroke is when a blood clot blocks an artery and stops the blood reaching your brain. (In the same way that blood clots in the heart cause a heart attack). A stroke can also be caused by a bleed in the brain, when a blood vessel in, or on, the surface of the brain bursts and bleeds into the brain.

Having high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and diabetes can increase your risk of having a stroke. Your diet, alcohol intake, smoking, and low levels of exercise can also increase your risk.

Ten ways to reduce your risk of a stroke


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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.