Prevention of cardiovascular diseases

Blood circulation and heart illustration

The cardiovascular system is the vital system of the human body, because without it life is simply not possible. But cardiovascular diseases are widespread and include diseases of the heart as well as damage to the blood vessels. In many cases, they are chronic diseases that cannot be treated at all or can only be treated permanently by means of surgery. Acute symptoms are often very dangerous, because a heart attack can quickly become fatal. Therefore, early detection and prevention are incredibly important. This article explains which preventive measures help and for which symptoms a visit to the doctor is urgently recommended.

Blood circulation and heart illustration - Our cardiovascular system is essential for our health. But how can we prevent disease?

© peterschreiber.media – 44479820 / Adobe Stock

The Cardiovascular System: An Overview

The term "cardiovascular system" summarizes certain areas of the human organism. The main task of the cardiovascular system is to supply the body, i.e. organs and all tissue layers, with oxygen and at the same time to remove harmful substances. While the terminology has taken root, it serves only to summarize the two circulatory systems: the small and the large. The two intertwine.

Lesser circulatory system: The pulmonary circulation

The right side of the heart plays a major role in this circulation. It pumps deoxygenated blood into the lungs via the pulmonary circulation so that it can be oxygenated:

  • Oxygen-depleted blood: it is pumped out of the body via the pulmonary circulation toward the right atrium of the heart. There it collects until it is pumped into the right ventricle.
  • Pulmonary artery: The blood now reaches the lungs via the pulmonary artery. There it is cleansed of carbon dioxide and enriched with new oxygen. Via the pulmonary vein, the fresh blood is brought to the left atrium of the heart.
  • Important factors: The two heart valves play a very important role in this circulation. The first is the tricuspid valve. It separates the right atrium from the ventricle. If the blood flows to the lungs, it must pass through the pulmonary valve.

Great circulation: The systemic circulation

This component of the cardiovascular system automatically connects to, complements, and ultimately ends up back in the pulmonary circulation:

  • Oxygenated blood: blood previously collected and oxygenated in the left atrium is directed into the left ventricle.
  • Aorta: The pumping action of the heart forces the blood into the aorta. The aorta now transports the blood throughout the body, supplying organs and tissues with fresh, oxygen-rich blood. At the same time, the organs release carbon dioxide and other waste products into the blood so that it can later be purified again. The return flow to the right atrium is through the veins of the body.
  • Important factors: The individual chambers are also separated from each other in the left side of the heart. The mitral valve separates the atrium from the ventricle, while the aortic valve prevents blood from unintentionally entering the aorta.

This explanation already shows the importance of the whole system and all its components:

  • Heart
  • Veins
  • Arteries
  • Lungs

Diseases or weak points in the system automatically weaken the entire apparatus. This is understandable, because if, for example, the heart does not pump sufficiently, neither oxygen-rich blood can be pumped into the organism nor oxygen-poor blood can be processed in the lungs.

Minor weaknesses can result in venous disorders and swollen feet, for example. More serious, however, are clogged arteries, veins or direct weaknesses in the heart.

Fortunately, the cardiovascular system is very stable by nature. In direct comparison, it is less likely to get out of step than the digestive system, for example. Nevertheless, hereditary predispositions, lifestyle or congenital conditions can contribute to a weakening that eventually leads to serious symptoms and disease.

Woman running on a forest path - Good fitness contributes to better health in more ways than one. © Microgen – 216797064 / Adobe Stock

How can the risk of cardiovascular disease be reduced?

In principle, it is easier than you might think to prevent cardiovascular disease by adopting a healthy lifestyle. Prevention can be compared with protection against sunburn: If you put on sunscreen and get out of the sun in time, you protect your skin. And if you adopt a generally healthy lifestyle, you can prevent cardiovascular disease without having to make any special effort.

Three factors play a special role here: sufficient exercise, a balanced diet and good stress management.

Sufficient exercise

Humans are not made to sit a lot, have an abundance of food, and avoid exercise. In fact, a big factor in cardiovascular problems is lack of exercise.

Getting enough exercise is important for several reasons:

  • Stamina: Good stamina means the body can withstand stress. Improving fitness therefore also strengthens the heart and lungs. Increased exertion requires the heart to pump faster and more vigorously to supply the body with oxygen. This targeted load trains the heart. Although the heart is called an organ, it is actually a muscle. Lung capacity also increases as a result of exercise: As a result, the lungs can oxygenate the blood faster and better.
  • Removal: Pollutants and carbon dioxide are better removed from the blood and thus from the body during exercise. This sometimes prevents arterial deposits, which can be quite dangerous. Those who have problems with swollen ankles will notice something else: Exercise causes the body to break down lymphatic fluid that collects in the tissues of the lower legs and causes swelling. In particular, the work of the calf muscles is important for this.
  • Weight: More calories are burned through exercise. At the same time, the body draws on stored fats to maintain energy levels. Exercise therefore basically helps to prevent obesity and reduce weight.

Those who engage in muscle-building sports are very less likely to lose weight and more likely to gain weight. This is not tragic in terms of the cardiovascular system. Muscle promotes the maintenance of a healthy body and burns many more calories than simple tissue, even at rest.

Healthy food - A healthy and balanced diet optimally supplies the body with all nutrients and also keeps the heart healthy. © leungchopan – 233132775 / Adobe Stock

A balanced diet

The health of the cardiovascular system is inevitably related to nutrition. A healthy and balanced diet is therefore incredibly important. But what does that mean?

  • Appropriate: The first step in nutrition management is to determine one's energy needs and calculate the necessary amount of calories based on that. Ultimately, even the most balanced diet is harmful if too much or too little is eaten on a permanent basis.
  • Nutrition: A healthy and balanced diet is not directly based on dietary patterns. It is about the body getting all the nutrients and fats it needs. Thus, vegans and vegetarians must also pay attention to their needs to avoid deficiencies.

For the prevention of diseases of the cardiovascular system and also during the therapy of an existing disease, the following foods are recommended:

  • Fresh vegetables and fruits: five handfuls of fruits and vegetables should be consumed per day. Due to the fructose in fruit, however, the vegetable portion should predominate.
  • Fish: Instead of meat,fish should be eaten twice a week.
  • Vegetarian diet: In general, it is advisable to eat less and preferably lean meat. Several times a week, meat should be avoided completely and vegetarian food should be eaten instead.
  • Oils as healthy fats: Instead of bad fats, high-quality oils are the healthier choice. The unhealthy dietary fats like trans fatty acids increase bad cholesterol in the blood, which can build up on artery walls. These bad fats are found especially in fried and deep-fried foods. The advantage: Many bad fats can be replaced well by healthy oils. Olive oil, rapeseed oil or hemp oil contain unsaturated fatty acids that strengthen the cardiovascular system.
  • Whole grains: Products made from whole grains should replace a large part of white flour products.
  • Legumes and nuts: They are healthy, make you feel full, and nuts are great as a healthy snack between meals. They are also rich in unsaturated fatty acids and offer a good mix of fiber, minerals and vitamins.

Salt should be avoided as far as possible as a preventive measure. Of course, this is not 100 percent possible in food, but it is advisable to reduce salt consumption. Salt binds the fluid in the body, causing the blood to thicken and increasing the pressure in the blood vessels. However, the evaluation of the German Adult Health Survey (DEGS) of the Robert Koch Institute showed that people in this country consume too much salt overall: Instead of the recommended maximum of 6 grams a day, women consume an average of 8.4 grams and men as much as 10 grams of salt.

And what about alcohol? The fact is that there are quite a few myths on this subject, but studies also look at heart health in connection with alcohol.

In the end, red wine is considered to be the alcoholic beverage which, unlike others, can actually benefit the cardiovascular system under certain circumstances. Red wines contain an ingredient called resveratrol, which is said to have a heart-protective effect. For this reason, the Mayo Clinic in the USA has classified moderate consumption of red wine as "heart-healthy". However, these are merely indications that such a connection might exist. This has not been definitively proven.

Basically applies:

Quantity: Drunk in moderation, red wine probably does no harm. However, there is a common misconception about what this actually means in units. As yardstick 0.125 liters of wine per day are valid for women, for men the double quantity. At the same time, at least two alcohol-free days are taken into account.

Taboo: white wines, beers, sparkling wines, fruit wines (sugar) and harder alcohol have a rather negative effect on the cardiovascular system and should be enjoyed at most very rarely.

The healthy diet is designed for the long term. If you eat a generally healthy and balanced diet, you can feel free to drink beer or enjoy grilled meat in between meals.

Man relaxes - Regular periods of relaxation help the body to reduce stress hormones and prevent negative effects. © cherryandbees – 294577794 / Adobe Stock

Stress Management

The damaging effect of stress on health and the psyche has long been suspected, but in recent years it has been studied with particular clarity. But what is stress actually? Biologically, stress means that the body is in a heightened state of tension and alert, releasing adrenaline and getting ready to fight or flee. These processes date back to the dawn of mankind. Today, however, stress is often a sign of high or false stress, demands and excessive requirements.

If the stressed state persists for a long time, there are consequences:

  • Circulation: Permanent stress can cause high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes. If arteries are already pre-damaged, they cannot withstand the increased blood pressure.
  • Side effects: In addition, chronic stress has side effects such as inferior sleep and irritability and not infrequently ends in false attempts to relieve stress: Frustrated eating, increased nicotine consumption and the use of alcohol and drugs.
  • Psyche: Those who are permanently stressed can also suffer from mental illnesses. These include burnout syndrome, depression, and anxiety and panic.

Good stress management is therefore an important form of prevention. The goal is to consciously integrate phases of relaxation into everyday life. Many people use techniques such as meditation or progressive muscle relaxation for this purpose. It also helps to delegate or refuse tasks, to exercise, to start the day calmly or to pursue a hobby. However, it is always important to find the stress trigger and work on it.

Symptoms, causes and risk factors

Many people fear cardiovascular disease. The concern is justified, because in the worst case, a disease leads to death. Therefore, it is important to know the risk factors, causes as well as symptoms.

Important modifiable and preventable risk factors

The preventive measures already suggest which risk factors are modifiable and preventable. Basic ones are:

  • Obesity: being significantly overweight damages the entire body. It is often accompanied by deposits in the arteries and high blood pressure, so that the cardiovascular system is damaged even more.
  • Lack of exercise: Lack of exercise not only leads to obesity, but also puts a strain on the cardiovascular system because it is not exercised. But be careful: those who already suffer from high weight and are untrained must approach exercise with caution.
  • Alcohol: Regular alcohol consumption damages the entire body. Among other things, it attacks the heart cells, weakening one of the most important organs.
  • Smoking: It is well known that vice is unhealthy. Nicotine is a neurotoxin and damages cells, the harmful substances from tobacco cigarettes not only deposit in the lungs, they also lead to constricted blood vessels. Vaporized tobacco or liquids are probably less harmful compared to tobacco cigarettes, but the best prevention is to give up smoking altogether.
Arteriosclerosis - Arteriosclerosis means that the blood can no longer flow properly. © Christoph Burgstedt – 237633120 / Adobe Stock

Causes of cardiovascular disease

There are definitely congenital or genetic weaknesses of the cardiovascular system. If significant diseases already occurred in the family, the risk of being affected increases. The causes are usually found in the following areas:

  • High blood pressure: Increased blood pressure strains the heart and veins. The blood is pumped through the arteries at high pressure, which damages them in the long run.
  • Arterial calcification: Deposits on the inner walls of arteries behave similarly to deposits in a sewage pipe: The blood has to be forced through the bottlenecks with greater force, while more and more particles are deposited at the narrow points. The end result is that the artery becomes clogged. In the case of smaller blood vessels, the body can still compensate for this to some extent, but it is precisely in the case of a blockage in the coronary arteries that the risk of a heart attack increases.
Woman grabs her heart - heart attacks are one of the most common causes of death in Germany - making it all the more important to recognize the symptoms early on.

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Symptoms that indicate a disease

A major problem with diseases of the cardiovascular system is that the symptoms often cannot be clearly or directly assigned. In addition, the symptoms sometimes differ significantly according to gender.

For example, a heart attack (myocardial infarction) in a man shows completely different signs than in a woman: shortness of breath, a feeling of pressure and pain in the left arm are typical in men. Women sometimes have pain in the lower back or pain in the upper abdomen.

In general, there are the following symptoms:

  • Chest pain: the feeling of tightness is also one of them.
  • Shortness of breath: It often occurs in conjunction with dizziness.
  • Heart trouble: This includes heart palpitations, palpitations, and circulation problems.
  • Physical signs: This includes swollen legs or feet (with swelling on one side in particular indicating a heart defect), fainting, sweating or freezing, and headaches.

But less clear signs such as increased nighttime urination, persistent fatigue or cold hands and feet are also considered symptoms.

Since many signs are easily overlooked in everyday life - after all, everyone has had dizziness or circulatory problems at some time or another - a comprehensive preventive checkup should be performed at least once a year.

A blood count is a good way to identify potential dangers. If, for example, the level of bad cholesterol is clearly excessive or the oxygen content in the blood is too low, this is already an important indication. Anyone who feels as if their heart is stumbling should definitely see a doctor and have this clarified. Long-term ECG and other examinations can usually detect the worst problems at an early stage and prevent worse.

The emergency doctor should always be called in the following cases, although there are again gender-specific differences here:

  • Man: Men often complain of a very sudden onset and severe chest pain that lasts longer than five minutes and likes to radiate into the left arm, sometimes also in the upper back. The chest feels constricted.
  • Woman: If there is a feeling of pressure or tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, coupled with sweating, back and upper abdominal pain or even vomiting and nausea, a heart attack should always be considered. This is especially true for post-menopausal women. Heart attacks in women often occur later in life.

Conclusion: Preventive instead of reactive

The cardiovascular system is a small marvel, yet we feel little from it as long as it functions well. To keep it that way, preventive measures should be taken. A healthy lifestyle with good, varied food and plenty of exercise is a good start to mitigating the risk factors.

However, if symptoms occur, especially repeatedly, they should definitely be clarified. If symptoms are even remotely reminiscent of a heart attack, rapid action is the top priority to prevent a possible fatal outcome.

Editorial principles

All information used for the content comes from verified sources (recognised institutions, experts, studies by renowned universities). We attach great importance to the qualification of the authors and the scientific background of the information. Thus, we ensure that our research is based on scientific findings.

Olivia Malvani

Olivia Malvani
Lector

As a student of nutritional sciences, she writes magazine articles on current medical-pharmaceutical topics and combines them with her personal interest in preventive nutrition and health promotion.

Last Update

10.01.2023

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