What is cardiovascular disease?

Written by Sue Leahy, Credentialed Diabetes Educator

Cardiovascular disease refers to a group of disorders that involve the heart and blood vessels (veins and arteries). People with diabetes are three to four times more likely to develop cardiovascular disease than those without diabetes. The most common forms of cardiovascular disease include:

  • Ischaemic heart disease: affecting the vessels in the heart related to heart attack
  • Cerebrovascular disease: affecting the vessels in the brain related to stroke.

Common symptoms of heart attack include:

  • Chest discomfort or pain: this can feel like a tight ache, pressure, fullness or squeezing in the centre or left side of your chest lasting more than a few minutes. It can also feel like heartburn or indigestion. It may come and go.
  • Upper body discomfort: this can feel like pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, shoulders, neck, jaw or upper part of the stomach.
  • Shortness of breath: either for no reason or greater than expected for the activity being performed. This often occurs before chest discomfort or pain develops if it does at all.
  • Anxiety: feeling a sense of doom or panic for no apparent reason.
  • Light-headedness: in addition to chest pressure, dizziness or fainting.
  • Sweating: sudden sweat with cold, clammy skin
  • Nausea and vomiting

It is important to note that you may experience all, some or none of these symptoms during a heart attack. People with diabetes, especially those who have had it for a long time, are at increased risk of silent ischaemia (a decrease in the blood supply to the heart caused by constriction or obstruction of the blood vessel), where there is no pain or discomfort associated with heart attack due to reduced nerve sensation around the heart.

Common symptoms of stroke include:

  • Trouble with walking: sudden dizziness, stumbling, loss of balance or coordination
  • Trouble with speaking and understanding: confusion or slurring of speech or inability to speak or think of the right words to explain what is happening
  • Paralysis or numbness on one side of your face or body: sudden weakness, numbness or even paralysis on one side of the body
  • Trouble seeing in one or both eyes: sudden onset of double, blurred or blackened vision
  • Headache: a sudden, severe headache especially combined with any other symptoms
  • Difficulty swallowing

Annual screening will help monitor the risk factors associated with developing cardiovascular disease by checking:

  • Cholesterol levels
  • Blood pressure
  • Blood glucose levels and HbA1c
  • Weight and waist measurement
  • Lifestyle goals: such as physical activity, smoking, healthy eating, alcohol consumption, and emotional well-being

Talk to your GP or health care team if you are concerned or experiencing any symptoms of cardiovascular disease. It is important to get treatment early.

For more information you can read the NDSS Looking After Your Heart factsheet here.

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