The heart beats about 2.5 billion times over the average lifetime, pushing millions of gallons of blood to every part of the body. This steady flow carries with it oxygen, fuel, hormones, other compounds, and a host of essential cells. It also whisks away the waste products of metabolism. When the heart stops, essential functions fail, some almost instantly.
Given the heart's never-ending workload, it's a wonder it performs so well, for so long, for so many people. But it can also fail, brought down by a poor diet and lack of exercise, smoking, infection, unlucky genes, and more.
A key problem is atherosclerosis. This is the accumulation of pockets of cholesterol-rich gunk inside the arteries. These pockets, called plaque, can limit blood flow through arteries that nourish the heart — the coronary arteries — and other arteries throughout the body. When a plaque breaks apart, it can cause a heart attack or stroke.
Although many people develop some form of cardiovascular disease (a catch-all term for all of the diseases affecting the heart and blood vessels) as they get older, it isn't inevitable. A healthy lifestyle, especially when started at a young age, goes a long way to preventing cardiovascular disease. Lifestyle changes and medications can nip heart-harming trends, like high blood pressure or high cholesterol, in the bud before they cause damage. And a variety of medications, operations, and devices can help support the heart if damage occurs.
Heart diseases include:
- coronary artery disease: the accumulation of cholesterol-filled plaque in the arteries that nourish heart muscle
- heart attack (myocardial infarction): the sudden stopping of blood flow to part of the heart muscle
- heart failure: the inability of the heart to pump as forcefully or efficiently as needed to supply the body with oxygenated blood
- heart rhythm disorders: heartbeats that are too fast, too slow, or irregular
- heart valve disorders: problems with the valves that control blood flow from one part of the heart to another part of the heart or to the body.
- sudden cardiac arrest: the sudden cessation of the heartbeat
- cardiomyopathy: a disease of the heart muscle that causes the heart to become abnormally enlarged, thickened, and/or stiffened
- pericarditis: inflammation of the pericardium, a thin sac that surrounds the heart
- myocarditis: inflammation of the myocardium, the middle layer of the heart wall
- congenital heart disease: heart diseases or abnormalities in the heart's structure that occur before birth