Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, killing over 800,000 Americans across gender and racial lines each year—that’s one in every four deaths, or one person every 36 seconds. If you look to positions two and three on the World Health Organization’s list of leading causes of death globally, you’ll see that stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) follow closely behind. And this only becomes more true the higher a country’s GDP is, which begs the question: why are so many people in first-world countries dying from preventable cardiopulmonary conditions? But even more importantly, exactly what is a cardiopulmonary disease?

What is a Cardiopulmonary Condition?

A cardiopulmonary condition is a more broad term for cardiopulmonary disease, which encompasses a variety of conditions affecting the heart (cardio) and lungs (pulmonary). Since both organs are part of the circulatory system, they rely on one another to function properly, meaning problems can spread from one organ system to the other. For example, if you were having trouble breathing, it would make your heart need to work harder to get that oxygen from your lungs to your blood and the rest of your body. 

The issue would also have a similar effect in the opposite direction; a condition causing the heart to pump blood inefficiently would stall oxygen transport away from the lungs, causing shortness of breath. The interconnection between the heart and lungs makes symptom tracking a priority for people who think they might be suffering from a cardiopulmonary disease. 

Symptoms will vary across conditions, but common symptoms may include: 

  • Bluish tint to the skin on hands and feet
  • Chest pain radiating from the arm or jaw (particularly during or after physical exertion)
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • High blood pressure
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sudden sweating
  • Wheezing

How is Cardiopulmonary Disease Diagnosed?

There are two common types of cardiopulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and the difference between the two conditions is found in the organ where the illness originates:

Cardiovascular Disease

Although it’s also referred to as heart disease, cardiovascular disease is usually used in relation to a condition where the vessel has become blocked, which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. This disease is the umbrella term for other diseases affecting the heart, including coronary artery diseases, blood vessel diseases, heart arrhythmia problems, and heart defects.

Cardiovascular disease is diagnosed by a doctor after a physical exam and conversation about your family history. Aside from blood tests and chest x-rays, some diagnostic tests might include: 

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)
  • Holter (portable ECG) monitoring
  • Echocardiogram
  • Stress test
  • Cardiac catheterizations
  • Cardiac CT scan
  • Cardiac MRI

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

CPOD is a cardiopulmonary disease that affects more than 16 million Americans. This disease includes diagnoses of emphysema and chronic bronchitis, and the breathing difficulties that accompany it can make it difficult for its sufferers to work or perform their daily tasks. 

Obtaining a COPD diagnosis usually begins with a breathing test called a spirometry. This device tests lung function by measuring how much air you can blow out and how fast, which helps doctors detect COPD before symptoms occur. Your doctor may also order a chest x-ray or arterial blood test to determine how well your lungs are able to oxygenate your blood, in addition to asking a few questions about your health history:

  • Do you smoke or have a history of smoking?
  • Are you exposed to secondhand smoke, air pollution, chemicals, or dust?
  • Have you been experiencing symptoms, such as shortness of breath, chronic cough, and/or excessive mucus?
  • Do you have family members who have had COPD?

What Causes Cardiopulmonary Disease?

The cause of a cardiopulmonary disease depends on the specific disease a patient is experiencing, but the most common cause across diseases is unhealthy lifestyle habits, including:

  • Poor diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • Being overweight
  • Smoking

Certain groups are considered more at risk for developing cardiopulmonary disease, and those individuals should be especially mindful about their lifestyle habits or any symptoms they’re experiencing:

  • Age
  • Sex (Men are generally more at-risk than women)
  • Family history
  • Smoking
  • Poor diet
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol levels
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Physical inactivity
  • Stress
  • Poor dental health

Long- and Short-Term Effects of Cardiopulmonary Disease

If the disease is not discovered soon enough, you could be at risk for developing one or more of the following complications:

  • Congestive heart failure
  • Myocardial infarction (heart attack)
  • Stroke
  • Aneurysm
  • Peripheral artery disease
  • Sudden cardiac arrest
  • Sudden cardiac death

Don’t Become Another Statistic

Even though more and more Americans are kicking their tobacco habit, cardiovascular disease and COPD are still the #1 and #2 leading causes of death among smokers and the general population. Quitting smoking and minimizing overall exposure to tobacco smoke is the only way to truly prevent COPD, and you don’t have to do it on your own. It’s important to discuss your plan to quit with your doctor, especially if you’re considered at-risk for any type of cardiopulmonary condition that smoking could have worsened. And next time you think about picking up a cigarette, it might be worth it to consider the question What is cardiopulmonary disease caused by? before you decide to light up.

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