Two-way street between your heart and your health, from the Harvard Heart Letter

Once thought of as a solitary pump, the heart is now known to affect, and be affected by, virtually all parts of the body. A special section of the September 2009 issue of the Harvard Heart Letter explores interactions between the heart, brain, lungs, skin, bones, sex organs, and other parts of the body. Some of the connections reflect the widespread impact of artery-clogging atherosclerosis. Others underscore the intimate relationships among body parts.

  • Lungs. Chronic lung diseases, like emphysema, can enlarge the heart's right ventricle. The breathing problem known as sleep apnea can affect blood pressure. In the other direction, heart failure can cause breathlessness and fluid accumulation in the lungs.
  • Kidneys. The heart and kidneys are tightly linked. Even mild kidney damage increases the chances of having a heart attack or stroke, or dying from one of these. And heart disease may be a warning that the kidneys are under siege.
  • Brain. Depression, loneliness, anxiety, anger, chronic stress, and other emotions can promote heart disease or make it worse. High blood pressure, cholesterol-clogged arteries, inflammation, and other risk factors for heart disease contribute to Alzheimer's disease and a condition called vascular dementia.
  • Skin. Cardiologists have long looked to the skin for signs of heart disease. Yellowish eruptions can signal a cholesterol-processing disorder, while bluish lips and cheeks can be a tip-off of trouble with the mitral valve. New research suggests that psoriasis, a lifelong skin disorder, is somehow linked to heart disease.

The Harvard Heart Letter special section also discusses connections between the heart and bones, the liver, the testes and ovaries, teeth and gums, thyroid gland, and other parts of the body.

Read an excerpt from the Special Section: "Cardiovascular Connections"

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