Heart Disease

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

Heart Disease Articles

Ask the doctor: Reversing atherosclerosis?

Some people may be able to reverse the buildup of plaque inside their heart’s arteries by taking high-dose cholesterol-lowering drugs or by following a strict, plant-based diet combined with exercise and stress reduction.  (Locked) More »

Depression and heart disease: A two-way street

Depression is about twice as likely to occur in people with heart disease compared with the general population. Both conditions have been linked to inflammation, which may damage the heart and blood vessels. And people with depression face a heightened risk of heart disease, possibly because they have a hard time getting regular exercise and eating healthy foods. Antidepressant medications (which a primary care provider can prescribe) combined with talk therapy with a mental health professional can help.  (Locked) More »

Adult asthma linked to higher risk of heart disease

People who develop asthma as adults may have a higher risk of developing heart disease than those without asthma. Adult-onset asthma is often triggered by air pollution and tends to be harder to control than asthma that starts during childhood. More »

Heart disease and brain health: Looking at the links

Cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol can cause poor blood flow and vascular damage in the brain. Over time, these changes cause a decline in cognitive abilities and pave the way for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Taking steps to manage blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol may help support brain function. (Locked) More »

Preventing blood clots: Is warfarin still right for you?

People who take warfarin—long a mainstay for treating atrial fibrillation—may need to stay extra vigilant to make sure their blood levels of this drug stay in a safe but effective range. Warfarin works by blocking the production of substances in the blood known as clotting factors. Many common drugs, foods, and dietary supplements affect warfarin, so the same dose may cause either too much or too little anti-clotting effect at different times. And warfarin users who have health-related changes should stay in close contact with their doctors about possible additional blood testing.  (Locked) More »

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy: Who has an inherited risk?

 A family history of heart disease, especially when it shows up at a young age, is a warning sign that a strong genetic component is at play. Common heart conditions such as high blood pressure and coronary artery disease most likely result from mild changes in a wide variety of genes combined with lifestyle and environmental factors. However, a few rare diseases are caused by changes with powerful effects in a few key genes. The most common of these is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). Now, doctors can use genetic testing to help guide individuals and families at risk for this condition. (Locked) More »