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

What you should know about: Statins

Two recent studies add to the debate about the use of statins, which are drugs that lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol levels and lower risk of heart attack and stroke. One study suggested that the guidelines for statin therapy be revised to include even people at low risk for a vascular event. The other study counters recent concerns that statins can be associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. The issue comes down to risks and benefits, but people with established cardiovascular disease involving plaque buildup in the arteries should be on the drugs. (Locked) More »

Can coffee help you live longer?

  Coffee may be part of a longer, healthier life. In a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, older adults who drank coffee (caffeinated or decaf ) had a lower risk of dying from diabetes, heart disease, respiratory disease, and other medical complications than non-coffee drinkers.   More »

Cancer treatments may harm the heart

  Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are increasing the number of people who survive cancer. But they also cause cardiovascular disease in some of the people who get these therapies.   More »

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 »