Heart Health

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 Health Articles

How it’s made: Cholesterol production in your body

Cholesterol has a bad reputation, thanks to its well-known role in promoting heart disease. Excess cholesterol in the bloodstream is a key contributor to artery-clogging plaque, which can accumulate and set the stage for a heart attack. But to fully explain cholesterol, you need to realize that it's also vital to your health and well-being. Although we measure cholesterol production in the blood, it's found in every cell in the body. The Harvard Special Health Report Managing Your Cholesterol explains cholesterol as a waxy, whitish-yellow fat and a crucial building block in cell membranes. It's also used to make vitamin D, hormones (including testosterone and estrogen), and fat-dissolving bile acids. In fact, cholesterol production is so important that your liver and intestines make about 80% of the cholesterol you need to stay healthy. Only about 20% comes from the foods you eat. (See illustration.) More »

Afib stroke prevention: Go set a Watchman?

Most people with atrial fibrillation take anti-clotting drugs to prevent strokes. For those who cannot take these drugs because of a high risk of bleeding, a tiny, basket-like device implanted in the part of the heart that traps clots may be an alternative.  (Locked) More »

Are eggs risky for heart health?

Large studies have not found evidence of higher rates of heart attacks, strokes, or other cardiovascular diseases in people who eat up to one egg per day.  (Locked) More »

Are some painkillers safer for your heart than others?

Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) routinely over a long time period can increase the risk of heart disease. Although this danger is greatest in people with heart disease, it’s also present in people without any signs of the disease. A large study suggested that the prescription-only drug celecoxib might be less risky than two other widely used over-the-counter drugs, ibuprofen and naproxen. But limitations in the study created some uncertainty about the findings. People who take any NSAID should always take the lowest possible dose for the shortest possible time.  More »

Fitness trackers: A path to a healthier heart?

New, scientifically validated digital fitness trackers may help people know if they’re exercising enough to lower their risk of heart disease. They rely on an algorithm known as Personalized Activity Intelligence that converts a person’s heart rate to a number of points, based on age, gender, and resting and maximum heart rate. For people who are sedentary or have chronic health conditions, the free iPrescribe Exercise app offers evidence-based advice that can help them exercise safely.  (Locked) More »

Tips for taking diuretic medications

Diuretics, commonly called "water pills," are the oldest and least expensive class of drugs used to treat high blood pressure. They help the kidneys eliminate sodium and water from the body. This process decreases blood volume, so the heart has less to pump with each beat, which in turn lowers blood pressure. People with heart failure, who often gain weight because their bodies hold onto excess fluid (a condition called edema), are often prescribed diuretic medications.  Not surprisingly, one of the most common side effects of taking water pills is frequent urination. Other possible side effects include lightheadedness, fatigue, diarrhea or constipation, and muscle cramps. Men may occasionally experience erectile dysfunction. In addition to getting rid of extra salt in your body, diuretic medications also affect levels of potassium. This mineral plays a key role in controlling blood pressure, as well as nerve and muscle function. In general, your kidneys help regulate potassium levels in your blood. But age, diabetes, heart failure, and certain other conditions may impair kidney function. And while some water pills tend to lower potassium levels, others have the opposite effect. More »

Your New Year’s resolution: A gym membership?

One advantage to joining a gym or health club is access to a wide variety of fitness equipment, which may help prevent boredom and make it easier to get a varied yet balanced workout. Many gyms have personal trainers who can design appropriate, safe exercise programs that teach good form and provide motivation.  (Locked) More »