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

Alcohol-related deaths on the rise

The number of alcohol-related deaths in the United States doubled between 1999 and 2017, a change that included an 85% increase in alcohol-related medical emergencies and deaths especially among women. More »

Can lifestyle changes affect atrial fibrillation?

For moderate to heavy drinkers with atrial fibrillation or afib, drinking less alcohol may help delay the time to a recurrence of the heart rhythm disorder. Alcohol may harm heart muscle cells, which can lead to changes in the heart’s blood flow and electrical activity. Binge drinking can trigger an episode of afib, a phenomenon known as holiday heart syndrome. And longtime heavy drinkers face a heightened risk of cardiomyopathy. (Locked) More »

How does marijuana affect the heart?

An estimated two million people in the United States with cardiovascular disease currently use or have used marijuana. Converging (yet limited) evidence suggests the drug may be harmful to the heart. Marijuana can cause the heart to beat faster and blood pressure to rise. Heart attack risk also appears to rise in the hour after smoking marijuana, and the drug has also been linked to an increased likelihood of atrial fibrillation and stroke. (Locked) More »

The dairy dilemma

Federal guidelines recommend two to three servings of low-fat or nonfat milk, cheese, or yogurt per day. However, some experts suggest limiting dairy to a single serving per day. Although fat from dairy products does not seem to increase heart disease risk, substituting fat from vegetables or vegetable oil for some dairy fat may lower a person’s risk. As more people move toward plant-based diets, popular alternatives for milk include almond and oat milk. (Locked) More »

Cardiology specialists: When you need extra expertise

Seeing a cardiologist is standard practice following a heart attack. But some people—such as those with a family history of early heart disease—may want to consult a cardiologist even if they haven’t experienced a heart-related scare. People who have multiple risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity, also may want to consider an evaluation by a heart disease expert. General cardiologists have broad knowledge about managing atherosclerosis, as well as diagnosing and treating heart rhythm disorders, heart valve problems, and other blood vessel disorders. (Locked) More »

Keeping tabs on triglycerides

Lowering LDL cholesterol levels is an important way to reduce the risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. But people also should monitor their triglycerides—the most common type of fat in the body. In some cases, medications help lower high levels, but lifestyle changes are the preferred method, such as eating healthier carbohydrates, curbing alcohol, losing weight, and increasing exercise. (Locked) More »

What causes a leaky mitral valve?

The mitral valve controls blood flow between the upper and lower chambers on the left side of the heart. Some people are born with a faulty mitral valve, which can cause blood to leak backward across the valve, a problem known as mitral regurgitation. But most people acquire mitral regurgitation in response to a different heart ailment, such as a heart attack, heart failure, or heart muscle disease. People with a moderate amount of mitral regurgitation should see their physician twice a year and get a yearly echocardiogram, or sooner if they develop symptoms. These include shortness of breath, fatigue, cough, palpitations, and swollen feet or ankles. (Locked) More »