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

Does heartburn feel like a heart attack?

Chest pain can indicate acid reflux causing heartburn, or it could be the first sign of an impending heart attack. It’s important to note symptoms in order to tell the difference. (Locked) More »

Don’t underestimate your heart risks

Two new surveys show that women and their physicians may not be taking women’s cardiovascular risks as seriously as they should be. Women are more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than from any other health condition, but both women and doctors appear to underestimate this risk. A proactive discussion with your doctor can help you protect your heart and your health. (Locked) More »

What is vasculitis?

Vasculitis, which means inflammation of blood vessels, can affect vessels that supply one part of the body or many different organs. The cause is often undetermined, but it may result from an autoimmune response. (Locked) More »

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 »

How’s your heart rate and why it matters?

When it comes to your heart rate, it's a bit like the speed of your car. What you want is not too fast, not too slow, and not too erratic. In fact, most of the time, heart rhythm and pace are not things you need to think about. And unless something unusual is going on, you're likely completely unaware of what your heart is doing. Heart rate is important because the heart's function is so important. The heart circulates oxygen and nutrient-rich blood throughout the body. When it's not working properly, just about everything is affected. Heart rate is central to this process because the function of the heart (called "cardiac output") is directly related to heart rate and stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped out with each beat). 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 »

Other conditions may be causes of chest pain

Although chest pain is often—and rightfully— associated with heart disease, other medical problems can be causes of chest pain. Angina—feelings of pressure, heaviness, tightness. or pain in the chest—occurs when plaque in the coronary arteries partially blocks blood flow and the heart muscle isn't getting enough oxygen and nutrients. (You can learn more about angina in the Harvard Special Health Report Diseases of the Heart: A compendium of common heart condition and the latest treatments.) Yet the heart isn't the only organ in the upper abdomen, and chest pain may be due to conditions affecting the esophagus, lungs, gall bladder, or stomach. When chest pain—particularly pain in the lower chest— is triggered by a meal, it is likely to emanate from the digestive system, rather than from the heart, and can be due to the following: More »