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

Can taking baths help my heart?

Taking a hot bath may have cardiovascular benefits, according to a March 24, 2020, study in the journal Heart. People who bathed daily in warm or hot water had a lower risk of stroke and other cardiovascular problems than less frequent bathers. (Locked) More »

Coffee: A heart-healthy brew?

Coffee drinking has been linked to a lower risk of dying of heart disease. Coffee contains potent anti-inflammatory substances called polyphenols that may improve blood sugar control and help blood vessels contract and relax. Although the caffeine in coffee may help people control their weight, it can trigger a short-term rise in blood pressure and heart rate. Filtered coffee, which removes substances that may raise LDL (bad) cholesterol, appears to be a better option than unfiltered coffee. (Locked) More »

FDA approves broader use of clot-prevention drug

Ticagrelor (Brilinta), a drug that prevents dangerous blood clots, was granted an expanded approval by the FDA. Doctors can now prescribe the drug in people at high risk of a heart attack as well as those who have already had one. More »

How do doctors evaluate treatments for heart disease?

Research on drugs, diets, and devices to treat or prevent cardiovascular disease includes clinical trials and observational studies. In clinical trials, volunteers are randomly assigned to receive either the new treatment or the comparison, which may be a placebo (an inactive therapy) or a treatment that’s already available. Observational studies follow a large group of people over a long period of time and gather information on diet, exercise, and medical and family history, for example. All studies have strengths and weaknesses, but the evidence from clinical trials is the most trustworthy. (Locked) More »

Racquet sports: A good way to ramp up your fitness

Playing tennis and other racquet sports can be a fun, effective way to improve fitness. Tennis engages muscles throughout your upper and lower body, which challenges the heart. The sport also features short bursts of high-intensity activity interspersed with less vigorous movements. This type of exercise, known as high-intensity interval training, seems to be a good way to boost cardiovascular fitness. Pickleball and badminton, which are less physically demanding than tennis, may be a good option for people who are older or less fit. Racquet sports have been linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a longer life. (Locked) More »

Your breasts may offer clues about your heart health

A mammogram may show calcifications (small calcium deposits) in the arteries of the breast. These may signal that a woman has a higher risk for cardiovascular disease. Arterial breast calcifications become more common with age. Some research has found that if a woman has calcifications in her breast arteries, she has a 70% chance of having calcifications in the coronary arteries as well. (Locked) More »

Updated advice for people with both diabetes and heart disease

Among people who have heart disease, those who also have diabetes may need more aggressive treatment than people who don’t have diabetes. This may include newer drugs that lower blood sugar levels and help people live longer. High blood sugar—the hallmark of diabetes—can injure the inner walls of arteries throughout the body, leaving them more prone to a buildup of fatty, artery-clogging plaque. Elevated blood sugar also stiffens the arteries so they don’t expand as well, and it makes blood platelets stickier and more likely to form blood clots. (Locked) More »