Obesity and Cardiovascular Disease

Human Heart, Computer Artwork
Human Heart, Computer Artwork. Science Photo Library/PICSLOGICSSTUDIO/Brand X Pictures

The term cardiovascular disease, or CVD, refers to disease of the heart and blood vessels. This includes the blood vessels that supply the brain, so CVD also includes cerebrovascular disease, which encompasses strokes and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs).

Other specific conditions included under the broad diagnosis  of CVD are: high blood pressure, or hypertension; coronary artery disease; valvular heart disease, which is disease affecting the heart valves; congenital heart disease, which is heart disease that is present at birth—essentially, birth defects affecting the heart; heart failure; peripheral arterial disease (PAD); and many others.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), CVD is the leading cause of death not only for adults in the United States but across the world. CVD is responsible for one out of every three deaths in the United States, and for 30% of all deaths worldwide. And, as the American Heart Association (AHA) notes, CVD kills more people than all forms of cancer combined.

The AHA also notes that an estimated 80% of CVD is entirely preventable. This means that there are risk factors for CVD that can be identified and modified so that the disease may be prevented. Obesity is one of these risk factors.

What Are the Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease?

The traditionally recognized risk factors for cardiovascular disease include age (older patients are at higher risk for CVD), family history, gender, obesity, diabetes, sedentary lifestyle, smoking, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

Many of these risk factors can be prevented or modified so as to reduce the risk of CVD.

How Does Obesity Cause Cardiovascular Disease?

Obesity has been found to cause a number of cardiovascular disorders, including high blood pressure, heart failure, and coronary artery disease. Obesity also causes high cholesterol and diabetes, which in turn are risk factors for CVD.

This has been found to be true in both children and adults.

In the latest guideline on heart failure released in 2013 by the American College of Cardiology Foundation and the American Heart Association, obesity is considered to be a starting point for heart failure. This guideline lists obesity as a medical condition that would, by itself, place a patient in Stage A of heart failure. Stage A, as defined by this national guideline, encompasses all patients who are “at high risk for heart failure but without structural heart disease or symptoms of heart failure.” A patient with obesity who had symptoms of heart failure or signs of structural heart disease, therefore, would be categorized into a later stage (B through D) of heart failure.

Obesity is also a risk factor for atrial fibrillation, which is a cardiac rhythm disorder that puts patients at high risk for stroke.

As has been noted elsewhere, obesity increases inflammation within the body, and inflammation has been found to play a major role in atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease. Obesity thus can affect all aspects of the cardiovascular system.


Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs). World Health Organization fact sheet. Accessed at http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs317/en/ on June 9, 2014.

Juonala M, Magnussen CG, Berenson GS, Venn A, et al. Childhood adiposity, adult adiposity, and cardiovascular risk factors. N Engl J Med 2011; 365:1876-1885.

Yancy CW, Jessup M. Bozkurt B, Butler J, et al. 2013 ACCF/AHA guideline for the management of heart failure: a report of the American College of Cardiology Foundation/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. Circulation 2013 Jun 5 [Epub ahead of print].

Hansson GK. Inflammation, atherosclerosis, and coronary artery disease. N Engl J Med 2005; 352:1685-1695.

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