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

Exercise protects the heart when diabetes threatens

People with diabetes are more likely to have a heart attack or stroke, or die of cardiovascular disease, than those without diabetes. Exercise can help keep blood sugar under control, and is also good for the heart and the rest of the body.   (Locked) More »

Light smoking: Dangerous in any dose

Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States. The health hazards of tobacco are enormous; they include heart attack, stroke, dementia, aortic aneurysms, emphysema, asthma and lung infections, and cancers of the mouth, throat, lung, and many other organs. Is smoking "just a little bit" harmful? A study from the University of California, San Francisco shows that light and intermittent smoking is nearly as dangerous as heavy smoking. Smoking just one to four cigarettes a day triples the risk of developing lung cancer; less than 10 cigarettes a day does the same thing for heart disease. More »

Gut microbes may affect heart disease risk

Researchers are exploring a possible link between gut microbes that live in the digestive system and the development of atherosclerotic plaque. Researchers from the Cleveland Clinic first took blood samples from two groups of people, those who had recently had a heart attack or stroke and those who hadn't. Blood from those with cardiovascular disease carried higher levels of choline, betaine, and trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO). All three are breakdown products of lecithin, a dietary fat. In step two, the researchers determined that the body converts dietary lecithin and choline into TMAO. They also determined that feeding mice lecithin or choline promotes the development of atherosclerotic plaque. To identify the source of TMAO production, the researchers gave mice a course of antibiotics, which wipes out many gut bacteria. When these mice were fed a diet rich in lecithin, they didn't make TMAO, and there was no increase in atherosclerosis. (Locked) More »

Small step forward for stem cells, giant leaps remain

In a very small study, stem cells from heart tissue helped boost pumping power in the hearts of heart attack survivors. But as encouraging as the findings were, stem cell research is still in its infancy and has a long way to go before yielding effective treatments for heart disease. (Locked) More »