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Circulatory System Diseases [Symptoms, Risks, and Prevention]

The circulatory system is responsible for oxygenated blood circulation. Your blood vessels pump oxygen-rich blood from the heart muscle to the rest of the body.

There are many circulatory system diseases that interfere with this process — some can be fatal, and each has its own symptoms. It is important to learn the risk factors and preventative measures to take against circulatory system diseases.

What are circulatory system diseases? They’re one side of what makes up cardiovascular disease.

Vascular disease is the same thing as circulatory disease. These terms refer to disorders of the blood vessels. This can overlap with heart disease but excludes any disorder which only affects the heart muscle.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, followed closely by cancer. Knowing how to identify or prevent these diseases can save a life. Let’s look at the causes and effects of circulatory system diseases.


Symptoms of Circulatory System Diseases

Circulatory diseases can be easy to spot, but their symptoms are sometimes less noticeable.

Common symptoms include:

  • Pain or discomfort in the chest
  • Pain or weakness in the arms and legs — especially on your left side
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Heavy breathing after minimal physical activity
  • Chronic cold hands and feet

If you have any of these symptoms, talk to a health care provider as soon as possible. Unfortunately, some circulatory system diseases have no recognizable symptoms, so make sure to get checked every year or so.

Call 9-1-1 immediately if you or someone near you is experiencing any symptoms of a heart attack or stroke.

Symptoms of a Heart Attack

  • Pain or tightness in your chest or arms, especially your left arm
  • Nausea, indigestion, or heartburn
  • Shortness of breath
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fatigue, dizziness, or a sudden lightheadedness
  • Irregular heart rate

Symptoms of a Stroke

  • Drooping face
  • Weakness in the arms
  • Slurred speech
  • Confusion
  • Trouble seeing or walking
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

The National Stroke Foundation uses the acronym F.A.S.T. to identify symptoms of stroke:

  • F = facial drooping
  • A = arm weakness
  • S = speech difficulties
  • T = time — as in time to call 9-1-1

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Risk Factors for Circulatory System Diseases

Circulatory system diseases can be life-threatening. Particularly if you’re at risk for heart disease, you should understand the risk factors for circulatory system diseases. There are some risk factors you can control and others you cannot.

Risk factors that drive up your chances of a circulatory system disease include:

  • Older age
  • Male gender
  • Caucasian, Hispanic, or African-American ethnicity
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Air pollution
  • Smoking
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Poor diet
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Obesity
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Family history of circulatory system diseases or heart defect (signaling genetic predisposition)

16 Most Common Circulatory System Diseases

There are many circulatory system diseases, but we will focus on the 16 most common. Many are interconnected, in that the less severe diseases lead to the more severe ones.


1. Heart Attack

Every 40 seconds, an American has a heart attack.

Your heart needs oxygen to function. When the blood vessels are severely or completely cut off, the flow of oxygenated blood ceases, and a heart attack occurs.

Blood vessels may not be able to transport the necessary oxygen because of a buildup of plaque — called atherosclerosis.

The scientific name for a heart attack is “myocardial infarction” (MI) and not, as many believe, “cardiac arrest.” An infarction — yes, it is spelled correctly! — is an obstruction of blood to an organ or tissue.

If a person’s pulse stops during a heart attack, it’s recommended to administer CPR in order to get heart muscle contractions started again. 

People who smoke, have diabetes, struggle with autoimmune conditions, or use illicit drugs are at higher risk of a heart attack.

One specific type of heart attack caused by a condition known as SCAD often appears with factors unique to this type of MI. For one, it’s caused by the sudden dissection of a coronary artery rather than plaque buildup. It’s also more common in younger female patients and women who have recently been pregnant.

Only a quarter of patients who suffer a heart attack live. The remaining portion of people don’t make it due to the death of too much heart tissue.


2. Congestive Heart Failure

Sometimes simply called heart failure, congestive heart failure is a dire condition in which the heart cannot pump enough blood through the circulatory system for the various parts of the body to function.

This does not mean your heart has stopped. The heart simply cannot meet your body’s needs and slowly fails to provide blood throughout the body. This causes some adverse symptoms unique to heart failure:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue or drowsiness
  • Blood and other fluids in your lungs
  • Edema, or the buildup of fluid in your legs and feet

Congestive heart failure is most common in people 65 or older, overweight, African American, or those with a history of heart problems.


3. Stroke

Whereas a heart attack is when the heart cannot get enough oxygen from the blood vessels, a stroke is when the brain cannot get enough oxygen from the blood vessels.

Just like heart attacks, a stroke occurs every 40 seconds. In these situations, a fast response is key to good recovery. That’s why the FAST acronym is so helpful in recognizing symptoms and getting immediate medical attention.

There are two ways a stroke can happen: hemorrhagic and ischemic.

A hemorrhagic stroke refers to either a blood vessel leak or a brain aneurysm burst. Blood leaks into the brain and creates pressure and swelling, which damages brain cells. These account for only 13% of all strokes.

An ischemic stroke is when a blood vessel cannot carry enough oxygen to the brain because of a blood clot. The remaining 87% of strokes fit in this category.

The most obvious symptom that sets these apart is the presence of head pain, which is typically only present during a hemorrhagic stroke.


4. Atherosclerosis

What some would consider a five-dollar word, atherosclerosis is actually a very simple disease.

Atherosclerosis occurs when plaque builds up in your arteries. Plaque is composed of fat, cholesterol, and calcium. If your cholesterol levels are out of whack, or your diet includes too much unhealthy fat, plaque tends to build up over time. This plaque restricts the flow of blood.

This condition is also called “arteriosclerosis” or “hardening of the arteries.”

Atherosclerosis leads to many of the other vascular diseases, such as carotid artery disease and peripheral artery disease. 

If caught early, atherosclerosis can often be managed by dietary and lifestyle changes before it leads to more severe disease.


5. Peripheral Artery Disease

Abbreviated as PAD, peripheral artery disease is a chronic disease where atherosclerosis spreads to the legs.

Peripheral arteries (and peripheral veins) are any blood vessels located outside of the chest or abdomen. This includes, hands, arms, and feet — but PAD most often affects the legs.

More than 10 million Americans suffer from PAD. High blood pressure and high cholesterol are two of the most common risk factors for PAD, but smoking and obesity increase your risk, too.


6. Carotid Artery Disease

Also called carotid artery stenosis, carotid artery disease occurs when atherosclerosis spreads to the carotid arteries, which are on either side of your neck.

This affects your blood supply. Carotid artery disease can lead to stroke and must be dealt with swiftly.

Diagnosis may include an ultrasound or angiography. Treatment may include angioplasty or a stent. In rare cases, surgery is required.


7. Coronary Artery Disease

Just under one in seven deaths in the United States is related to coronary artery disease — also called coronary heart disease or abbreviated CAD.

CAD occurs when atherosclerosis spreads to major blood vessels in the heart, called the coronary arteries. This can quickly damage the heart muscle.

Atherosclerosis is a precursor to CAD, as well as PAD.


8. Angina 

Angina is pain. Though angina almost always refers to pain in the chest, angina pectoris more specifically means chest pain.

If the heart is not receiving enough oxygen due to a narrowing in the arteries, a crushing, squeezing pain in the chest will follow.

Angina is a symptom of CAD and other cardiovascular diseases. Coronary artery disease blocks oxygen from getting to the heart, and this causes immense discomfort which can spread from the chest to the arms, shoulders, neck, and jaw.


9. Mitral Valve Stenosis

The word stenosis simply means “a narrowing.” Mitral valve stenosis refers to the narrowing of the mitral valve.

The mitral valve is one of the four heart valves which allow blood to flow between two chambers of your heart (the left atrium to the left ventricle).

Though it can lead to other, more severe cardiovascular problems, mitral valve stenosis in itself has no symptoms until it brings about heart failure.


10. Mitral Valve Prolapse

The mitral valve has one flap at each end. When one or both of the flaps bulge, that is mitral valve prolapse.

This prolapse allows for the regurgitation of blood through the mitral valve flaps that don’t completely close because they are prolapsed.


11. Mitral Valve Regurgitation

When the mitral valve leaks, it can pump blood backward. This reverse pumping of oxygen-rich blood is called mitral valve regurgitation.

Since the blood flow is not as efficient, the other chambers of the heart have to work harder to provide the necessary oxygen. This can lead to a host of cardiovascular issues.

If you allow a strep infection to go untreated, it can increase your chance to develop mitral valve regurgitation. Also, intravenous (IV) drugs can increase your risk of a disorder of the mitral valve.


12. Arrhythmia

Any type of irregular heartbeat is called an arrhythmia, whether it be too fast, too slow, or simply erratic.

Used interchangeably with the term dysrhythmia (meaning abnormal rhythm), arrhythmia (meaning no rhythm) can happen in either the lower chambers (ventricular) or upper chambers (supraventricular) of the heart.

If your resting heartbeat is over 100 beats per minute, you have tachycardia or fast arrhythmia.

If your resting heartbeat is under 60 beats per minute, that is considered bradycardia, or slow arrhythmia.

Arrhythmias are very common and often harmless. Sometimes, though, they can lead to other serious conditions within the cardiovascular system.


13. Thrombosis

Thrombosis refers to the formation of a blood clot within a blood vessel, cutting off the blood supply. A blood clot is also called a thrombus.

In a healthy human body, blood clots are necessary to stop internal and external bleeding. But blood clots can occur in the wrong place at the wrong time, leading to some severe vascular diseases.

When a thrombus forms in a vein, it is abbreviated VTE for venous thromboembolism. It usually occurs in your legs. VTE is usually diagnosed with an ultrasound and treated with anticoagulants.

Anticoagulants prevent blood clots from forming (coagulating). Be careful when taking anticoagulants, as this can lead to a vitamin K deficiency.


14. Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm

An aortic aneurysm affects the aorta, the largest and most important artery in your body. An abdominal aortic aneurysm refers to when your aorta weakens and bulges, leading to a burst vessel.

A burst aorta is a life-threatening medical emergency. Symptoms include pain in the abdomen and back.

The aorta takes a long time to weaken and burst, so your health care provider should be able to catch a slightly weakened aorta before it worsens into an emergency.


15. High Cholesterol

About one in eight Americans have high cholesterol. Too much “bad” cholesterol can build up inside your blood vessels, restricting blood flow.

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is considered bad cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) is considered good cholesterol.

LDL is often the main component of the plaque buildup that slowly stops up your blood vessels and leads to most of the circulatory diseases on this list.

Although “high cholesterol” tends to sound like a death sentence from your doctor, the issue is much more complex. In reality, a disproportionate ratio of good-to-bad cholesterol is more problematic than an overall high number. 

Eat foods high in fiber and unsaturated fats. Avoid trans fat and saturated fat, like you find in most fast-food restaurants. Then, your cholesterol levels can stay in check, as these dietary changes carry a powerful impact on bad cholesterol in particular.


16. Hypertension

Otherwise known as high blood pressure, hypertension is the most common circulatory system disease. One in three American adults suffers from high blood pressure, and another one in three are “prehypertensive”, meaning they are at risk for hypertension.

However, high blood pressure is among the most treatable vascular diseases.

There are many affordable medications to lower those systolic and diastolic levels. However, there are also natural methods to lower your blood pressure.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that high blood pressure costs the United States $48 billion each year — through medications, health services, and missed days of work.

Hypertension can be prevented. On top of preventative measures for all vascular diseases, hypertension may be avoided by decreasing sodium and increasing potassium in your diet.

How to Prevent Circulatory System Diseases

Circulatory system diseases are a serious problem, especially in the United States. Scientists do not know the cause of every one of these diseases.

But your circulatory health does not need to be left in the hands of fate.

Many of these circulatory diseases are linked to one another. For example, if you suffer from high blood pressure, that put you at higher risk of other circulatory system disorders, such as heart attack.


Diet and Lifestyle Changes

Do not fret. There are several steps you can take to protect your circulatory health.

  • Exercise at least 30 minutes every weekday
  • Don’t smoke (or quit!)
  • Do not drink excessively
  • Limit your salt intake
  • Reduce stress by taking care of yourself
  • Avoid excessive salt intake
  • Stay away from fast food (trans fat and saturated fat, in particular)
  • Decrease cholesterol in your diet
  • Eat more fruits, vegetables, oily fish, and whole grains
  • Keep your weight in a healthy range


Nitric Oxide

NO, better known as nitric oxide, lowers the risk of circulatory system diseases. You can up your nitric oxide levels by changes in your diet or by taking dietary supplements.

Nitric oxide’s main function is as a vasodilator. This means it loosens the walls inside your blood vessels — lowering blood pressure, increasing blood flow, and decreasing the risk of vascular diseases.

Nitric oxide is found naturally in leafy greens, beets, cocoa, and garlic. You can also supplement nitric oxide.


Dietary Supplements

There are several dietary supplements which can help prevent circulatory system diseases, such as those which increase nitric oxide production.

Consult your health care provider before you make any major lifestyle changes or start taking dietary supplements.

Health care providers can keep blood pressure and diabetes in check. Your doctor will be able to guide you through the best combination of these preventative measures, so you can rest easy and live long.


In Summary

  • Circulatory system diseases are also called vascular diseases. They concern dysfunction in the blood vessels.
  • Common symptoms include weakness in the arms and legs, shortness of breath, and cold hands and feet.
  • Chest pain and irregular heartbeat are two circulatory disorders (angina and arrhythmia) that can lead to more serious cardiovascular conditions.
  • There are several preventative measures, like avoiding smoking, trans fat, excessive alcohol, and excess sodium, that can reduce your risk of these diseases. 
  • Exercise is another preventative measure to protect heart health.
  • Dietary supplements can provide vitamins and other nutrients into your diet. Beetroot, grape seed extract, and green tea extract are three great circulatory health supplements.

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