The blood circulatory system, also called the cardiovascular system, consists of the heart and the blood vessels that run throughout the body. It delivers nutrients and oxygen to all cells of the body.

The oxygen we breathe gets mixed into the blood in the lungs, and the heart pumps this blood to all parts of the body. Each heartbeat is a contraction of the heart as it pumps blood around the body.

The heart has four chambers: the left atrium, right atrium, right ventricle and left ventricle. They are all separated by one-way valves, meaning the blood can only flow in one direction. Blood is carried to the heart in the veins, and back out to the rest of the body in the arteries.

There are many different circulatory system diseases all of which interrupt this complex process of distributing blood around the body.

In this article, learn about diseases that affect the circulatory system, as well as treatment options and prevention.

Fifteen circulatory system diseases

Cardiovascular system with diseases
The cardiovascular system is composed of the heart and blood vessels.

Diseases that can affect the circulatory system include:

1. Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis is a hardening of the arteries.

It is typically caused by a diet high in fat, which leaves fatty deposits on the lining of the blood vessels. These fatty deposits stick together and make the arteries hard and less flexible.

Atherosclerosis leads to high blood pressure, which can damage the heart and kidneys and even lead to strokes.

2. Heart attack

Myocardial infarction (MI) is the technical term for a heart attack. A heart attack can occur when the blood supply is cut off from the heart, often by a blood clot. Some heart attacks are minor, but others can be life-threatening.

3. Mitral valve prolapse

Mitral valve prolapse means the mitral valve bulges out or prolapses because it does not close evenly. The mitral valve pumps freshly oxygenated blood out of the heart to the rest of the body.

4. Mitral valve regurgitation

Mitral valve regurgitation happens when the mitral valve does not close all the way and causes a leak, allowing some of the oxygenated blood to flow backward.

5. Mitral stenosis

Mitral stenosis means the mitral valve is abnormally narrow which can prevent the blood from flowing smoothly or quickly through it.

6. Angina pectoris

Angina pectoris means “pain in the chest” and occurs if the heart is not receiving enough blood. People often describe it as a crushing sensation or feeling like their chest is in a vice.

People with angina pectoris may also feel breathless, tired, and nauseated.

7. Arrhythmia and dysrhythmia

Arrhythmia and dysrhythmia are often used interchangeably, and both refer to abnormal heart rates and rhythms. In general, arrhythmia means “no rhythm” and dysrhythmia means “abnormal rhythm.”

8. Cardiac Ischemia

Man at desk at work clutching his chest because of heart pain.
Cardiac ischemia may cause similar pain to a heart attack.

Cardiac ischemia means the heart muscle is not getting enough oxygen to function properly. A person with cardiac ischemia will usually experience angina-like pain and may feel as though they are having a heart attack.

9. High cholesterol

High cholesterol is usually caused by a sedentary lifestyle and an unhealthful diet. Some people can also be genetically at risk of high cholesterol.

People need cholesterol, but too much cholesterol can form a thick layer on the inside of the vessels, blocking blood flow.

10. Heart failure

Heart failure means that the heart is not pumping blood around the body as efficiently as it should. It can lead to fatigue, shortness of breath, and coughing.

Some people with heart failure find it difficult to do things such as walking, climbing stairs, or carrying groceries.

11. High blood pressure (hypertension)

High blood pressure or hypertension means the force or pressure of the blood flowing through the vessels is consistently too high. High blood pressure can lead to stroke, loss of vision, heart failure, heart attack, kidney disease, and reduced sexual function.

12. Stroke

A stroke can happen when one of the vessels that lead to the brain either becomes blocked by a blood clot or bursts. This stops blood flow and prevents oxygen from getting to the brain.

13. Peripheral artery disease (PAD)

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) refers to narrowing of the arteries that lead to the legs, stomach, arms, and head. This reduced blood flow can damage the cells and tissues in the limbs, organs, and brain. PAD tends to occur more often in older people.

14. Venous thromboembolism (VTE)

Venous thromboembolism (VTE) is a blood clot that gets stuck in a vein, blocking the flow of blood. It is a serious condition that needs emergency medical attention.

15. Aortic aneurysms

Aortic aneurysms affect the main artery in the body. It means the artery wall has weakened, allowing it to widen or “balloon out.” An enlarged artery could burst and become a medical emergency.

Can circulatory diseases be prevented?

Student pointing at anatomical model of human heart.
Various circulatory diseases are linked to one another.

While scientists do not know what causes all of these diseases, there are things that individuals can do to reduce the risk of developing them.

Many circulatory system diseases are linked to each other. For example, high blood pressure damages the blood vessels, which can lead to other circulatory problems.

The narrowing of blood vessels caused by high cholesterol increases the likelihood of a person getting a blood clot.

Being overweight or obese also increases the possibility of developing circulatory diseases. However, a healthful diet and being active can reduce the risk.

Regular exercise keeps the heart healthy by reducing the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and being overweight — all of which are risk factors for circulatory diseases.

People who have family members with a circulatory disease are more likely to develop one themselves. This risk, however, can be reduced with a healthful lifestyle.

Does smoking increase the risk of circulatory diseases?

Smoking is a significant risk factor for developing circulatory diseases. Toxic substances in tobacco can narrow and damage the blood vessels, increasing the risk of blood clots and causing poor circulation.

When to see a doctor

Some circulatory diseases, such as stroke, heart attacks, and burst aneurysms, are life-threatening and need emergency medical attention.

Anyone who experiences heart pain is advised to make an appointment with their healthcare team. People who are concerned that they are at risk of developing a circulatory disease can ask their doctor how to make healthful lifestyle changes.

Outlook

The outlook for circulatory system diseases depends on the underlying problem. Without immediate medical attention, stroke, heart attacks, and aneurysms can have devastating effects.

Other diseases can be managed. For example, doctors typically treat angina pain with tablets that increase the blood flow to the heart.

Eating a healthful diet, exercising regularly, and not smoking can ease many symptoms or reduce the risk of the conditions listed above.