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

Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm

What Is It? An abdominal aortic aneurysm is an abnormal swelling in the aorta. It can be fatal. The aorta is the body's largest artery. It carries oxygen-rich blood from the heart to smaller arteries in the body. An abdominal aneurysm occurs in the abdominal aorta. This is the part of the aorta between the bottom of the chest and the pelvis. An abdominal aortic aneurysm usually causes a balloon-like swelling. The wall of the aorta bulges out. Normally, the aorta is about one inch (2.5 centimeters) in diameter. The size increases very gradually as people age. If the abdominal aorta becomes larger than 3 centimeters, this is called an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Most aortic aneurysms are related to atherosclerosis. In atherosclerosis, fatty deposits build up along the inside walls of blood vessels. (Locked) More »

Heart Failure

Heart failure is a condition in which the heart cannot pump efficiently enough to meet the body's need for blood. Contrary to its name, heart failure does not mean the heart has failed completely. Heart failure is also called congestive heart failure. (Locked) More »

Pacemaker

A pacemaker is an implanted device that regulates your heartbeat electronically. It monitors your heart's rhythm and, when necessary, it generates a painless electric impulse that triggers a heartbeat. Your pacemaker is programmed to meet the needs of your heart. Early pacemakers were implanted to treat bradycardia, an abnormally slow heartbeat. Now pacemakers can be programmed to treat a variety of heart problems, including heart failure. The electronic control center of your pacemaker — the part that is programmed by your doctor — is called the pulse generator. The pulse generator is a unit encased in titanium that usually is placed under the skin below your collarbone. In most cases, the unit is small, often weighing less than 30 grams (about 1 ounce). A lithium iodide battery inside the generator lasts 5 to 12 years, with an average of 7 to 8 years. Other sophisticated electronic components are responsible for: Sensing your natural heartbeat Generating an electrical impulse, called a pacing pulse, according to how the unit is programmed Keeping an electronic record of your heartbeat and your pacemaker's activity The pulse generator is attached to one or more wires called leads. These are threaded through large blood vessels in your upper chest into your heart. At the ends of the leads are small electrodes that attach to the inner surface of your heart. These electrodes pick up your heart's natural electric signals. The pacing pulse from the pulse generator travels along the leads to your heart muscle. (Locked) More »

Coronary Artery Disease

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the narrowing of coronary arteries. These are the blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. The condition is also called coronary heart disease (CHD). CAD is usually caused by atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the buildup of plaque inside the coronary arteries. These plaques are made up of fatty deposits and fibrous tissue. (Locked) More »

Coronary Artery Bypass Surgery

Coronary artery bypass surgery is a procedure that detours (or bypasses) blood around a blocked section of one or more coronary arteries. It is also called coronary artery bypass grafting or CABG (pronounced "cabbage"). Coronary arteries are the blood vessels that supply the heart with oxygen and nutrients. You have several coronary arteries. They are named for their location. For example, your doctor may speak of the left main coronary artery, left anterior descending artery or the right coronary artery. Coronary artery disease is any illness that damages these arteries. Coronary artery disease is often called "coronary atherosclerosis." Atherosclerosis is the narrowing of arteries caused by the buildup of fat and cholesterol. This buildup is called plaque. Plaque can decrease the amount of blood that reaches the heart. The plaque can tear and cause a blood clot. The clot can block your artery and stop the flow of blood to your heart. This can cause a heart attack. (Locked) More »

Endocarditis

Endocarditis, also called infective endocarditis, is an infection and inflammation of the heart valves and the inner lining of the heart chambers, which is called the endocardium. Endocarditis occurs when infectious organisms, such as bacteria or fungi, enter the bloodstream and settle in the heart. In most cases, these organisms are streptococci ("strep"), staphylococci ("staph") or species of bacteria that normally live on body surfaces. (Locked) More »

Heart Transplant

A heart transplant is surgery in which a patient with a life-threatening heart problem receives a new, healthy heart from a person who has died. In a heart transplant, the patient who receives the new heart (the recipient) is someone who has a 30 percent or greater risk of dying within 1 year without a new heart. Although there is no absolute age limit, most transplants are performed on patients younger than 70 years old. The person who provides the healthy heart (the donor) is usually someone who has been declared brain dead and is still on life-support machinery. Heart donors are usually younger than 50, have no history of heart problems, and do not have any infectious diseases. The recipient and donor must be a good match, meaning that certain proteins on their cells (called antigens) are similar. A good match will reduce the risk that the recipient's immune system will see the donor heart as a foreign object and attack it in a process called organ rejection.   (Locked) More »

Heart-Lung Transplant

A heart-lung transplant is surgery for someone with life-threatening heart and breathing problems. Surgeons remove the damaged heart and lungs and replace them with a healthy heart and lungs from a person who has died. The person receiving the new heart and lungs (the recipient) is someone with a high chance of dying within one to two years without a transplant. The person providing the healthy heart and lungs (the donor) is someone who is brain dead, but still on life-support machinery. Currently, surgeons perform very few heart-lung transplants each year in the United States. This number is small because there is a shortage of suitable donors and the requirements for heart-lung donation are stricter than those for heart donation alone. Only a small percent of people who are suitable heart donors also fit the criteria for donating both heart and lungs.   (Locked) More »

Familial Dysautonomia

Familial dysautonomia (FD), also called Riley-Day syndrome, is an inherited disorder that affects the nervous system. The nerve fibers of people born with FD don't work properly. For this reason, they have trouble feeling pain, temperature, skin pressure and the position of their arms and legs. They can't fully experience taste. In addition, people born with FD have a hard time regulating bodily functions, a condition called dysautonomia. These functions are managed by the autonomic nervous system — the network of nerves that controls such "automatic" functions as breathing and sweating. In people with FD, dysautonomia can affect many vital functions. It can cause difficulties in swallowing, digestion and passing urine. It also can interfere with the control of blood pressure, body temperature and the production of tears to keep the eyes moist. FD primarily affects Jews of Eastern European (Ashkenazi) background. It is a genetic problem that is caused by an inherited mutation, or change, in a gene called IKBKAP. Scientists believe that a mutation in this gene interferes with the body's ability to produce a key protein necessary for nerves to develop and function normally. FD only occurs when someone inherits two copies of the mutated or changed gene, one from each parent. If a child inherits only one copy of the mutated IKBKAP gene from one parent, and one normal gene from the other parent, he or she will be a "carrier" of FD. Although he will not show symptoms of the illness, a carrier can pass the gene to his or her children without ever even knowing that they have it. Doctors estimate that about one out of every 30 Ashkenazi Jews is a carrier of FD. This means that roughly one in every 3,600 children of Ashkenazi families is born with the disorder. In most cases, an FD carrier is unaware of the genetic problem until a close family member — child, sibling, niece or nephew — shows symptoms of the disorder. (Locked) More »

Cardiomyopathy

Cardiomyopathy refers to changes in the heart muscle. These changes prevent part or all of the heart from contracting normally. (Locked) More »