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

A good night’s sleep: Advice to take to heart

Sleeplessness can detract from productivity and quality of life. The hazards of poor sleep extend well beyond a cranky mood. Research shows that an irregular sleep pattern that varies from the seven- to nine-hour norm is linked to cardiovascular risks, including obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and coronary artery disease. (Locked) More »

The genetics of heart disease: An update

Some rare types of heart disease are monogenic, which means they are caused by just one or a few genetic changes that have a very strong effect in causing disease. But most cases of coronary artery disease are polygenenic, which means they are associated with dozens of different gene variants, each of which raises risk by about 10%. Some variants occur in genes not previously suspected to affect cardiovascular risk. This suggests there are other pathways beyond the traditional heart disease risk factors such as cholesterol, blood pressure, and diabetes. (Locked) More »

Take a stand against sitting

More than half of the average person’s waking hours are spent sitting. All that sitting can increase risk for heart disease and early death. Yet a person can offset sitting’s health risks by doing just two minutes of light-intensity activity like walking for each hour of sitting, and at least an hour of moderate-intensity exercise after sitting for more than eight hours a day. (Locked) More »

Can your blood pressure be too low?

In people with heart disease, lowering systolic blood pressure (the top number) to 120 mm Hg may also lower diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) to less than 70 mm Hg, which is linked to an increased risk of heart attack, heart failure, and death. More »

Do premature heart attacks run in your family?

About 12% of people ages 20 and older have a parent or sibling who had a heart attack or angina (chest pain caused by narrowed coronary arteries) before the age of 50. Over all, these people are roughly twice as likely to have a heart attack than people without that family history. They should be extra vigilant about monitoring and managing their blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels. Lifestyle habits such as eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, avoiding tobacco, and maintaining a healthy weight may be sufficient, but some people need to take medications. (Locked) More »

Why nutritionists are crazy about nuts

Eating fewer than five 1.5-ounce servings per week of nuts and seeds has been linked to an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and diabetes. To reduce health risks, snack on nuts and seeds, substitute them for meat, or add them to cereals, salads, and main dishes. (Locked) More »