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

Avoiding atherosclerosis: The killer you can't see

Following healthy lifestyle habits is the foundation for atherosclerosis risk reduction. Such habits include eating a healthy diet, exercising, quitting smoking, and controlling underlying conditions such as high blood pressure. People who are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease or who have already had a heart attack, stroke, or the diagnosis of angina or peripheral artery disease may need to take a medication called a statin to try to fend off cholesterol buildup in the arteries and shrink plaques. (Locked) More »

Can fish oil stave off heart disease?

The question of whether fish oil staves off heart disease is not yet settled. Most available fish oil supplements don’t clearly protect against heart disease. However, eating at least two meals of fish per week does appear to protect against heart disease. (Locked) More »

Heart palpitations: Mostly harmless

Heart palpitations are common heart rhythm disturbances. Most often people experiencing them feel a sensation like the heart is flip-flopping, skipping beats, or racing. If someone experiences these symptoms alone it typically doesn’t signal a problem, but if they are persistent or are accompanied by dizziness, weakness, or fainting, they should be checked out by a doctor. (Locked) More »

Lead and heart disease: An underappreciated link?

According to a growing body of evidence, the presence of even a small amount of lead in a person's blood may raise the risk of heart disease. Studies have found that increases in blood pressure are associated with higher bone lead levels, and it may also raise LDL cholesterol and contribute to blood clots. Public health initiatives have resulted in a reduction in exposure, but lead remains present in our lives. (Locked) More »

Prescription-strength omega-3 fatty acids to prevent heart disease?

A prescription drug called icosapent ethyl (Vascepa) that contains large doses of EPA (an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil) lowers high blood levels of triglycerides. For some people, it also may reduce heart attacks, strokes, and related events. Triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood, have been getting more attention of late for their role in heart disease. But the heart-protecting benefits of icosapent ethyl may also arise from calming inflammation, making blood less likely to clot, and preventing dangerous heart rhythms. (Locked) More »

Monitoring a narrowed, stiff aortic valve

For people with moderate to severe aortic valve stenosis who have no symptoms, deciding when to replace the faulty valve has been unclear. But a watchful waiting approach appears to be safe for most people. More »

When do you need a heart stent?

An estimated two million people get stents every year to treat coronary artery blockage, yet the American Medical Association says they were one of the most highly overused medical interventions. While stents can be lifesaving for people who are having a heart attack, they may not be the best way to improve symptoms of stable angina or reduce the risk of a heart attack. Instead, they should make lifestyle changes and take medications that relieve symptoms and reduce heart attack risk. (Locked) More »