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

Finding hidden risk for heart disease

Most men are familiar with the common factors related to a higher heart disease risk, like cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, poor diet, and inadequate exercise. But there are other signs of risk men may not recognize, such as erectile dysfunction, abdominal fat, gum disease, and depression. The good news is that once these issues are recognized, they can be addressed and managed. More »

What is “broken-heart syndrome?”

Stress cardiomyopathy—also known as “broken-heart syndrome”—is a reversible heart condition that often mimics a heart attack. First described more than 25 years ago, it is now recognized more often than in the past. It usually results from severe physical or emotional stress, such as a severe medical illness, the death of a family member, or a natural disaster. During an episode, the heart takes on an unusual shape, in which the tip of the left ventricle balloons outward and the base contracts. The heart’s workload increases, leading to symptoms such as chest pain and breathlessness. But the condition usually resolves within a month. More »

Strategies for sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea, which often causes loud snoring and daytime sleepiness, is closely linked to cardiovascular problems. The gold standard treatment, called positive airway pressure, can be challenging for people to use. Tips for using the bedside machine may help people use the treatment more consistently. These include making sure the mask fits properly and treating nose, mouth, or throat discomfort caused by the treatment. More »

The age of statins

The cholesterol-lowering statin drugs can help protect against heart attack or stroke, both for people who have already had one and those who are at high risk for one of these events. But a recent study of 50,000 people age 75 and older found that the drugs did not reduce overall survival or rates of heart attacks and strokes among healthy older adults with no history of heart disease. More »

What to expect during an exercise stress test

Exercise stress tests, also known as treadmill tests, are done mainly in people with symptoms suggestive of heart disease. That usually means stable angina, or chest pain that occurs in predictable patterns during physical activity. The test uses an electrocardiogram to record the heart’s electrical activity while a person walks on a treadmill that gradually increases in speed and incline. Changes to the ECG can signify blood flow abnormalities caused by blockages in the heart’s arteries or other problems in the heart. More »

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. More »