What Causes Cardiovascular Disease?

The Heart Attack & Stroke Prevention Center

Cardiovascular disease in our arteries can begin as early as our teenage years.

Often a body's resistance to insulin, which is a natural hormone produced by the pancreas, leads to Type 2 diabetes and disease in your blood vessels. Insulin resistance can also result in eventual cardiovascular disease significant enough to cause a heart attack or stroke.

Other factors can harm your arteries as well, and most heart attacks and strokes are the end result of that damaged condition. Yet the problem develops so gradually and so silently that six of every ten Americans who have suffered a heart attack never knew they had cardiovascular disease.

Blood clots cause the majority of heart attacks and all ischemic strokes. (An ischemic stroke happens when an artery in your brain is blocked.)

Clot formation is just the end of a long process of disease which begins as inflammation in the arteries incited by cholesterol. In response to the inflammation, plaque pushes its way under the artery lining, causing the arteries to thicken. A weakened artery will fight to hold in the unstable plaque, but the plaque can rupture without warning, breaking through the vessel wall. The body senses danger and rushes repair cells to the scene.

What happens next could change a life forever: Those repair cells form a blood clot, which blocks the artery. A clot the size of a baby aspirin can stop a heart or trigger a stroke.

Click here for a more detailed list of risk factors ("red flags") that may indicate a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.