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

Why nuts may be good for your heart

Eating a serving of nuts at least twice a week is linked to a lower risk of dying of cardiovascular disease. Improved cholesterol and blood sugar levels seen among nut eaters may account for part of this benefit. More »

A little-known factor that boosts heart attack risk

About 20% of people have high levels of lipoprotein(a), or Lp(a), a fatty particle linked to premature heart disease. People who should consider getting an Lp(a) test include those with a family history of early heart disease; people with heart disease who have normal (untreated) levels of LDL, HDL, and triglycerides; and close relatives of people with high Lp(a). Studies of new drugs to lower Lp(a) are under way, with results expected in a few years. (Locked) More »

Understanding "blood thinners"

So-called blood thinners actually don’t "thin" blood. They are anti-clotting drugs that protect high-risk people from developing potentially dangerous blood clots that can lead to a heart attack or stroke. People who may benefit from them include those who have atrial fibrillation or a stent in a blood vessel, or who are immobile after surgery. (Locked) More »

Why junk food diets may raise heart disease risk

Eating foods such as red meat and sugary treats may trigger inflammation, raising a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease. But a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and other anti-inflammatory foods reduces the risk. Inflammation is marked by the release of cytokines into the bloodstream. These attract immune cells in artery walls, contributing to the development of plaque. Transitioning to a less inflammatory diet can be challenging because many processed foods (such as salty, sweet, and fatty snacks) are designed to promote overconsumption. (Locked) More »

Can you supercharge the Mediterranean diet?

A Mediterranean diet featuring plant-based proteins is associated with more weight loss and steeper declines in cholesterol, insulin resistance, and inflammation markers than a Mediterranean diet with more animal-based proteins. More »

Migraine: A connection to cardiovascular disease?

People who get migraines with aura have a slightly higher risk of heart attack, stroke, or death from cardiovascular disease than people who get migraines without aura or no migraines. But migraines are most common in younger women, whose baseline risk of cardiovascular problems is very low in the first place. Still, those who get migraine with aura should be sure to tell their primary care provider or gynecologist. Taking estrogen-containing birth control pills or hormone therapy may further raise stroke risk in these women. More »

The benefits of brief bursts of exercise

Doing vigorous exercise for just 12 minutes triggers changes in blood levels of substances linked to cardiovascular health. The patterns of these substances may provide a way to gauge a person’s fitness level. More »