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

A heart-healthy diet doesn’t need to be low in fat

Over the past decade, nutrition experts have shifted away from recommending a low-fat diet to focusing more on an overall healthy dietary pattern. This eating style, which includes lots of plant-based foods, is naturally low in saturated fats. Found mainly in meat and dairy products, saturated fat can boost levels of harmful LDL cholesterol, a key contributor to heart disease. Cutting back on all types of fat does not necessarily translate into a diet that lowers cardiovascular risk. The plant-centric Mediterranean eating pattern, which is rich in healthy unsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds, and olives, has the best evidence for lowering heart disease risk. More »

How does inflammation increase the risk for heart attacks?

We now understand why inflammation increases heart attack risk. As cholesterol invades the wall of the artery, the immune system treats it like it treats other invaders. Immune system cells infiltrate the artery wall, release inflammation-producing chemicals, and send signals for other cells to remove the cholesterol. Then a fibrous cap forms over the plaque. Inflammation inside the plaque can eventually eat away at that fibrous cap. If the cap ruptures, cholesterol and the inflammatory cells and chemicals suddenly spill into the artery, causing a blood clot to form and block blood flow. More »

Calcium scan concerns

Coronary artery calcium scans tend to be quite accurate. Unlike some other imaging tests, the results are unlikely to be either falsely negative or falsely positive because the results are literally black and white (the calcium shows up as white on the scan). (Locked) More »

Can certain foods or drinks affect your heart’s rhythm?

Certain foods and drinks can affect the heart’s rhythm, but only under unusual circumstances. Possible culprits include grapefruit, energy drinks, licorice, and tonic water. But for the most part, the risks are relevant only for people with a rare inherited condition called long QT syndrome, which can cause shortness of breath, unexplained fainting, and sometimes sudden death. (Locked) More »

Hot baths and saunas: Beneficial for your heart?

Taking baths or saunas on a regular basis may help lower the risk of heart attack and stroke. Evidence for these benefits comes from studies in Japan (where hot tub use in ingrained in the culture) and Finland, where saunas are popular. Both habits seem to be safe for people with stable heart disease and even mild heart failure. But people with unstable chest pain (angina), poorly controlled high blood pressure, or other serious heart issues should avoid them. Because high temperatures can lower blood pressure, older people with low blood pressure should be extra careful in hot baths and saunas. More »

Telemedicine: A good fit for cardiovascular care?

Virtual doctor visits—when a person talks to a physician on a video call instead of during an in-person office exam—became popular early on in the coronavirus pandemic. The technology may be a good option for managing cardiovascular disease even after in-person visits become more common again. In the future, remote monitoring of health data using Wi-Fi–enabled devices that measure a person’s weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, pulse, and heart rhythm could further advance telehealth’s promise. (Locked) More »