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

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 »

Beta blockers: Cardiac jacks of all trades

Beta blockers are useful in treating a variety of cardiovascular conditions including angina, heart failure, and high blood presure. This medication spotlight looks at how beta blockers work, who can benefit from them, and what to expect if you take one. More »

Depression and cardiovascular risk in women

Smoking, poor diet, physical inactivity, high cholesterol, obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD). There's mounting evidence that depression should be added to this list. Research suggests that it increases the chances of developing heart disease and stroke, even after factors such as smoking are taken into account. Two investigations highlight the relationship between depression and CVD in postmenopausal women. (Locked) More »

Putting heart attack, stroke triggers in perspective

Certain activities and situations can trigger heart attacks in those at risk, but researchers are showing how these risks need to be placed in the proper context. The impact of triggers depends largely on cardiovascular health. They are far more likely to cause a heart attack, stroke, or cardiac arrest in a person with heart disease than in someone with a healthy heart and arteries. Physical condition also matters. Exercise or physical exertion is much more likely to trigger a heart attack in someone who leads a sedentary life than in someone who exercises regularly. It's almost impossible to avoid cardiovascular triggers, but you can reduce or inactivate their effects. (Locked) More »