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

Promising news about heart failure

Serelaxin, a new drug derived from the hormone relaxin, appears to reduce the symptoms of heart failure, organ damage from poor blood flow, and heart failure deaths. In men, relaxin appears to help sperm swim more easily. In women, relaxin loosens tissues in the female reproductive organs and pelvic ligaments to help prepare for childbirth. It also relaxes blood vessels, allowing them to expand. This allows more blood to reach the placenta and kidneys without raising blood pressure. In people with heart failure, the new drug made from relaxin increases blood flow throughout the body. This helps a poorly functioning heart to be more effective. Because relaxin is also an anti-inflammatory, it helps prevent inflammation associated with heart failure from causing damage to the kidneys, liver, and heart. (Locked) More »

New thinking about stable heart disease

People with stable heart disease are at low risk for heart attack and may not need invasive treatment until significant chest pain is no longer relieved by medication. At this point, the risk of heart attack is greater, and coronary artery bypass surgery or angioplasty should be considered. (Locked) More »

An easier way to replace a heart valve

Transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) is a new procedure that is making a big difference for people with aortic stenosis—severe narrowing of the main outlet valve from the heart (the aortic valve). Open-heart surgery has been the historical way to treat this problem. But some people aren’t candidates for such invasive surgery because of other serious medical conditions or older age. With TAVR, there’s no need to open the chest. Instead, a catheter takes the replacement valve through the leg artery to the heart. Patients who previously would have died are now being saved by this procedure. (Locked) More »

New approach to fighting heart disease

Treating cardiovascular risk factors like smoking; high blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar; and being overweight is not always enough to prevent the spread of atherosclerosis, a disease that can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Because inflammation is involved in the development and spread of atherosclerosis, two clinical trials are now getting started to test whether reducing inflammation with anti-inflammatory drugs provides any additional protection against heart attack and stroke. (Locked) More »

Stem cell therapy for heart disease

For more than a decade scientists have been looking for ways to repair damaged hearts with stem cells. These cells are unique in their ability to develop into many types of cell. Treating the heart with stem cells has proven remarkably safe. While this approach is being pursued on many fronts, its future likely lies in the prevention and treatment of heart failure. (Locked) More »