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 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 »

Calcium and heart disease: What is the connection?

Calcium supplements do not seem to increase the risk of heart disease. But it’s best to get the recommended daily intake of this mineral (which ranges from 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams per day, depending on age and gender) from foods rather than pills. Potential calcium sources include dairy products, canned salmon or sardines with bones, and calcium-fortified orange juice. Figs, broccoli, and kale also provide modest amounts of calcium. (Locked) More »

What you may not know about your heart

Although cardiovascular disease is diagnosed later in women than men, it can begin to develop in early adulthood. The disease is more likely to affect the heart’s network of microscopic vessels and to have more subtle symptoms in women. (Locked) More »

When the heart’s smallest vessels cause big problems

Damage to the smallest blood vessels that feed the heart is known as coronary microvascular disease. For unknown reasons, it is far more common in women than men. The symptoms are similar to those of classic coronary artery disease, such as chest pain and shortness of breath. But microvascular disease is far more difficult to diagnose and may require specialized stress tests that include a PET or MRI scan. These tests can assess “coronary flow reserve,” a measure of how well the heart can augment its blood supply in response to stress.  (Locked) More »