Cardiovascular disease is a general term to describe medical conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels. Examples of major cardiovascular diseases and conditions include coronary artery disease, heart attacks, heart failure and strokes.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and is a growing concern for people living with HIV. This is true, in part, because people with HIV are living longer than ever before, due to the widespread use of antiretroviral (ARV) therapy. And just like their HIV-negative peers, their risk of cardiovascular disease increases once they enter their 50s and 60s.
HIV itself can further increase the risk. Untreated HIV, with its high viral loads, has been linked to cardiovascular disease and experts now recommend starting treatment earlier to avoid cardiovascular damage that many believe is caused by active viral reproduction. However, many of the drugs used to treat HIV can also contribute to cardiovascular disease, notably by raising cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
The good news is that many steps can be taken to help prevent and manage cardiovascular disease. Decades of research, involving HIV-negative and HIV-positive people, have repeatedly shown that lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise and quitting smoking can greatly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. When lifestyle changes aren't enough, a number of effective medications and other medical approaches are available. It's also important to take cardiovascular risk factors into account when making crucial HIV treatment decisions, such as when to start or switch treatment and which medications to use.