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

Managing mitral valve disease: Progress and promise

Severe mitral valve disease happens when the mitral valve can’t close properly, causing blood to flow backward during heartbeats. Common symptoms include breathlessness, fatigue, cough, and swollen feet or ankles. Most cases are treated with open-heart or minimally invasive surgery. But a catheter-based device called MitraClip can repair some faulty valves. And a number of other devices—including some that can replace the entire valve—are under development. (Locked) More »

After standing, a fall in blood pressure

Orthostatic hypotension, a condition marked by a sharp drop in blood pressure after standing up, can cause people to become dizzy or lightheaded. Orthostatic hypotension is more common among older people because they’re more likely to take drugs that can worsen the condition, such as beta blockers (which reduce the heart rate) and alpha blockers (which can reduce blood pressure; they’re used in men to treat an enlarged prostate). Several diseases, including diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and cancer, can contribute to the problem, which has also been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. (Locked) More »

More antidotes for newer blood thinners

Blood thinners (also called anticoagulants) are prescribed to people at risk for developing dangerous blood clots. Sometimes the medications cause internal bleeding. However, there are now antidotes for all of the newer blood thinners. The antidotes reverse the blood-thinning effect of the drugs within minutes. These antidotes have no other side effects. Doctors suggest that having antidotes gives people who take blood thinners some reassurance. New blood thinners are now considered safer than the older blood thinner warfarin (Coumadin). (Locked) More »

Predicting heart disease: The sex factor

Several conditions that are specific to women or men may be lesser-known warning signals for heart disease. For women, these include problems that can occur during pregnancy, including gestational hypertension, pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes, and premature delivery. All of these conditions seem to raise a woman’s risk of heart disease later in life. For men, erectile dysfunction has been linked to double the risk of serious cardiovascular events. (Locked) More »