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Australian Indigenous HealthBulletin

Key facts

What is cardiovascular disease?

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is when the heart and blood vessels that carry blood around the body are damaged. The blood carries oxygen and nutrients to the cells and removes carbon dioxide and other waste that is produced by cells. The heart pumps blood around the body, and blood is carried back to the heart via the lungs. In this way, a healthy cardiovascular system makes sure that oxygen and nutrients find their way to each part of the human body.

Because the cardiovascular system is a complex system reaching all parts of the body, there are a number of cardiovascular diseases, including coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension and rheumatic heart disease.

How do people get CVD?

People get CVD because they have one or more risk factors. Not everyone who has risk factors will get CVD, but most people with CVD have several risk factors.

There are risk factors that can be changed and those that cannot (see lists below). And there are contributing factors, such as poverty, which can be changed, but not easily.

Risk factors that can be changed:

Risk factors that cannot be changed:

What are the main types of CVD?

Coronary heart disease (CHD - also known as ischaemic heart disease) is caused by damage to the arteries that supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle. If the damage is severe enough, it can result in a heart attack, which damages the heart muscle.

CHD is often a result of a build-up of hard, fatty substances in the arteries.

In view of it’s major impact on Indigenous populations CHD will be discussed in more detail below.

Hypertension means high blood pressure, which can cause damage to the body. Normal blood pressure is usually expressed as 120/80. A person is said to have high blood pressure if they have a reading of 140/90 or more. The main risk factors for hypertension are not doing enough exercise, being overweight or obese, stress, and eating lots of salt.

Stroke occurs when blood flow to a part of the brain is reduced or stops. This is usually caused by a blocked or burst blood vessel. As a result of a stroke, a part of the brain may die and no longer work properly. Sometimes, a stroke leads to a long-lasting disability, including inability to move an arm or leg, and problems with talking.

Rheumatic heart disease occurs as a result of damage to the heart valves and heart muscle following a bout of acute rheumatic fever. The fever itself is a reaction to bacteria infecting the throat, and affects some children living in rural and remote Australia. Poor personal hygiene, poor living conditions and malnutrition are added risk factors for developing rheumatic heart disease.

Coronary Heart Disease

What are the consequences of CHD?

The most serious consequence of CHD is a heart attack, which can be fatal (lead to death). Even heart attacks that are not fatal can lead to serious health problems, including:

People can be at either low risk or high risk of experiencing a cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack.

People at low risk:

People at high risk:

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

Chest pain or discomfort is the most common symptom of a heart attack, but some people don’t experience chest pain at all, and others experience only mild chest pain or discomfort. Pain, pressure or heaviness may also be felt in shoulders, arms (particularly the left arm), neck, jaw and back.

Some people feel generally unwell or ‘not quite right’. They may also be nauseous, dizzy, have a ‘cold sweat’ or be short-of-breath.

Heart attacks need urgent medical action, at a hospital if at all possible.

The Heart Foundation warns that the symptoms of heart attack aren’t always ‘what you think’. They suggest that if a person thinks they’re having a heart attack, they should call triple zero (000) - ‘The operator will work out if you need an ambulance. And if it’s a false alarm, well, that’s the best thing that could happen.’

What can be done to prevent CHD?

Some risk factors cannot be changed, so not all CHD can be prevented.

People can change most risk factors, however, and improve their health.

Prevention of CHD:

How is CHD managed?

A person experiencing a heart attack or stroke needs some strategies to be put in place to ensure a better quality of life.

These strategies, known as cardiac rehabilitation include:

Last updated: 10 July 2012
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