Circulatory System Diseases
What are circulatory system diseases?
Circulatory system diseases are any conditions that affect your heart or blood vessels. Your circulatory system, also called your cardiovascular system, keeps blood moving in your body. Your heart and your blood vessels work together to supply oxygen-rich blood to all of your organs and tissues. This requires complex teamwork. But as with any team, if one player gets sick and can’t play, the whole team feels the effect.
That’s why it’s important to learn about circulatory system diseases. A problem with one part of your circulatory system can have a ripple effect on your entire system and, ultimately, your whole body.
Overall, circulatory system diseases can cause a range of issues, including:
- Problems with your heart’s pumping action.
- Changes to your heart’s structure.
- Inefficient blood flow.
- Blocked or narrowed blood vessels.
- Weakened blood vessels.
Circulatory system diseases may come on suddenly or develop gradually over years.
Learning about every possible condition that could affect your circulatory system would take a long time. But it’s useful to learn the basics about several broad types of circulatory system diseases. Knowing the types of things that can go wrong can help you notice symptoms and understand treatment options.
Talk with your healthcare provider if you think you have a circulatory system disease.
What diseases affect the circulatory system?
Scientists organize diseases that affect your circulatory system into two large categories:
- Cardiovascular diseases, which affect your heart and/or blood vessels.
- Vascular diseases, which affect your blood vessels.
Both categories include many different diseases and conditions. Here are some common ones that may have already impacted you or a loved one.
Aneurysms are weak spots in the walls of your arteries that can expand like a balloon. As they continue to get bigger, they’re at risk for rupture (breaking open) or causing blood clots. Aneurysms can occur in any artery.
- Thoracic aortic aneurysms, which develop in the part of your aorta that’s in your chest.
- Abdominal aortic aneurysms (AAA), which develop in the part of your aorta that’s in your belly. These are more common than thoracic aortic aneurysms.
Other aneurysms include:
- Cerebral (brain) aneurysms, which form in the arteries in your brain.
- Carotid aneurysms, which form in your carotid arteries, which are in your neck.
- Mesenteric artery aneurysms, which form in the arteries in your belly that supply your intestines.
- Popliteal aneurysms, which form in your popliteal artery in your leg.
- Splenic artery aneurysms, which form in an artery in your spleen.
An arrhythmia is an irregular or abnormal heartbeat. Some begin in the upper chambers of your heart (atria). These are called supraventricular arrhythmias. Atrial fibrillation is the most common type.
Others begin in the lower chambers of your heart (ventricles). These are called ventricular arrhythmias. One type, ventricular fibrillation, is a life-threatening medical emergency because it leads to sudden death.
Arrhythmias prevent your heart from contracting and relaxing normally. As a result, your heart can’t pump blood as well as it should.
Atherosclerosis is the buildup of plaque in your arteries. Over time, the plaque narrows your arteries and makes it harder for blood to flow through. The plaque is also dangerous because it can rupture and trigger a blood clot.
Atherosclerosis raises your risk of other diseases, including:
- Carotid artery stenosis: Plaque buildup in the arteries in your neck that supply blood to your brain.
- Coronary artery disease (CAD): Plaque buildup in the arteries that supply blood to your heart. CAD is the most common cause of a heart attack.
- Peripheral artery disease. Plaque buildup in the arteries that run through your arms and legs.
Blood pressure conditions
Your blood pressure is a number that shows how forcefully blood flows through your blood vessels. Your blood pressure normally changes during the day and adjusts to your activity level. But blood pressure that’s too high or too low can be dangerous.
Blood pressure conditions include:
- Hypertension: High blood pressure throughout the arteries in your body. This is what people usually mean when they say “high blood pressure.” Hypertension is known as a silent killer because it often has no symptoms but it can, over time, lead to many health problems.
- Hypotension: Low blood pressure throughout your body.
- Portal hypertension: High blood pressure in the vein that carries blood from your intestines to your liver.
- Pulmonary hypertension: High blood pressure in the arteries that carry blood from your heart to your lungs.
Cardiomyopathy is a group of conditions that affect your heart muscle, leading to weakened heart squeeze. These conditions harm your heart’s ability to pump blood. Specific types of cardiomyopathy include:
- Dilated cardiomyopathy: Your heart chambers get bigger.
- Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy: Your heart muscle gets thicker.
- Peripartum cardiomyopathy: Your heart weakens late in pregnancy or soon after delivery.
Congenital heart disease
Congenital heart disease refers to heart problems babies are born with. Congenital heart disease is sometimes heritable (passed down within biological families). Other times, it occurs in people with no family history. Nearly 1 in 100 people have some form of congenital heart disease.
Types of congenital heart disease include:
- Atrial septal defect and ventricular septal defect: A “hole in the heart,” located between the left and right sides of your baby’s heart.
- Bicuspid aortic valve: An aortic valve with two flaps instead of three.
- Coarctation of the aorta: Narrowing in one part of your baby’s aorta.
- Dextro-Transposition of the great arteries (d-TGA): Pulmonary artery and aorta are switched.
- Hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS): An underdeveloped left side of your baby’s heart.
- Patent ductus arteriosus (PDA): An opening between your baby’s aorta and the pulmonary artery that should’ve closed at birth.
- Pulmonary atresia: Missing or blocked pulmonary valve.
- Tetralogy of Fallot: A combination of four defects that prevent your baby from getting enough oxygen-rich blood.
- Tricuspid atresia: Missing tricuspid valve.
- Truncus arteriosus: Only one artery carries blood out of your baby’s heart, instead of two (aorta and pulmonary artery).
Heart failure happens when your heart can’t pump blood as well as it should. So, your organs can’t get enough oxygen. Heart failure has many causes and is associated with many other medical conditions. Over 6 million people in the U.S. have heart failure.
Heart failure is a progressive disease, meaning it gets worse over time. The later stages are called “congestive heart failure.” This involves fluid buildup (congestion) in different parts of your body.
Heart valve disease
Heart valve disease can affect any of your four heart valves. These are the doors that separate different parts of your heart and manage blood flow. A diseased valve strains your heart. Over time, this can lead to complications like heart failure or sudden cardiac death.
The most common valve diseases among adults in the U.S. are:
- Mitral valve regurgitation: Your mitral valve is leaky, causing some blood to flow backward.
- Aortic valve stenosis: Your aortic valve is too narrow, limiting how much blood can flow through.
- Aortic valve regurgitation: Your aortic valve is leaky.
We all need to have some lipids (fats) in our blood. Fats do important work in our bodies. But too many fats in your blood can be dangerous. This condition is known as high cholesterol (hyperlipidemia). High cholesterol can raise your risk of many other medical conditions.
Familial hypercholesterolemia is high cholesterol that’s passed down within biological families. People with this condition have very high LDL (bad cholesterol) levels. This raises their risk of coronary artery disease and heart attacks. They’re also more likely to face these complications at a younger age.
A stroke is a life-threatening emergency that needs immediate medical attention. It happens when blood flow to your brain gets interrupted. There are several types of stroke:
- Ischemic stroke: A blood clot blocks an artery leading to your brain.
- Hemorrhagic stroke: There’s bleeding in your brain (sometimes, from a ruptured blood vessel or head injury), which blocks brain cells from receiving blood.
- Transient ischemic attack (TIA): A blood clot temporarily blocks blood flow to your brain, causing a “mini stroke.” A TIA is usually a warning sign before an ischemic stroke.
Vasculitis is an inflammation of your blood vessels caused by an overactive immune system. Vasculitis can affect your veins, arteries or capillaries. This inflammation can narrow or block your blood vessel. It can also weaken your blood vessel and cause an aneurysm.
Venous diseases are a group of conditions that affect your veins. Your veins carry oxygen-poor blood back to your heart. Diseases that affect your veins can slow down your blood flow or make blood flow in the wrong direction. Severe venous disease can completely block blood flow.
Common venous diseases include:
- Chronic venous insufficiency (CVI): Your leg veins struggle to pump blood back up to your heart. This causes blood to collect in your leg veins.
- Deep vein thrombosis (DVT): A blood clot forms in one of your deep veins (veins that aren’t near the surface of your skin). If the clot breaks free, it can travel to your lungs and cause a life-threatening pulmonary embolism.
What are the common symptoms of circulatory system diseases?
Symptoms vary widely depending on the specific disease. Some symptoms of circulatory system diseases are what healthcare providers call “non-specific.” That means they could signal many possible medical problems.
So, it’s important to tell your provider about any and all symptoms you’re experiencing. They’ll investigate what’s wrong and run tests if needed. Some common symptoms include:
- Angina (chest pain with exertion).
- Dyspnea (shortness of breath).
- Edema (swelling, most commonly in your legs).
- Heart palpitations (an irregular or forceful heartbeat).
It’s also important to be aware of symptoms that could signal medical emergencies. Learn the symptoms of the following conditions and share this information with your loved ones:
- Aneurysm rupture or dissection.
- Heart attack.
- Pulmonary embolism.
- Stroke and mini stroke.
- Ventricular fibrillation.
What are common treatments for circulatory system diseases?
Common treatments include medications, procedures and surgery.
Many different medications treat circulatory system diseases. Common ones include:
- ACE inhibitors: Treat high blood pressure, heart failure and more.
- Anticoagulants: Help prevent blood clots. Lower your risk for heart attacks, strokes and pulmonary emboli.
- Beta-blockers: Treat a wide range of heart and circulatory problems.
- Calcium channel blockers: Treat high blood pressure, arrhythmias and more.
- Diuretics: Remove extra fluid from your body (also called “water pill”). Commonly treat high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy and heart failure.
- Statins: Lower your cholesterol and lower the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Some conditions require procedures or surgeries. Thanks to advances in technology, many methods are available. These include:
- Heart surgery.
- Minimally invasive heart surgery.
- Percutaneous coronary intervention (coronary angioplasty).
How can I prevent disease of the circulatory system?
One of the most important ways to prevent circulatory system diseases is to visit your healthcare provider for annual checkups. Many people have risk factors they don’t even know about. Your provider can catch problems early before they become more serious.
Dietary changes and lifestyle changes can also help you prevent circulatory system diseases. These include:
- Follow a heart-healthy diet.
- Build aerobic exercise into your daily routine.
- Avoid smoking, tobacco use and street drugs.
Talk with your provider about changes that are healthy for you. Be sure to check with them before starting any new exercise plan.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Circulatory system diseases affect your body and your life in many ways. That’s why it’s important to learn about common conditions and be actively involved in your medical care. Build rapport with your healthcare provider. Be aware of common symptoms and warning signs so you can seek help early when needed. And share this information with others. You never know when one small fact could save someone’s life.
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