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

Muscle aches from statins: Real, but sometimes imagined?

About 10% of people report muscle aches when taking statins. In some cases, other health conditions such as arthritis, obesity, or just aging may be to blame. Doing exercise or yard work can cause muscle aches, which some people mistakenly attribute to statins. Another possible explanation: a phenomenon known as the nocebo effect, in which people experience negative side effects from a drug, placebo, or other treatment based on an expectation of harm. Muscle-related problems associated with statins usually resolve with a lower statin dose or a change to a different statin. (Locked) More »

The buzz about caffeine and health

For most people, consuming caffeine from coffee, tea, or chocolate poses no serious health risk if taken within safe amounts. Healthy people who have never had a heart attack or currently manage high blood pressure should consume no more than 400 mg per day, which is about the amount in four cups of coffee or 10 cups of black tea. However, people who have had a prior heart attack or have heart disease should keep their dosage to about half that per day. (Locked) More »

Lessons about brain health from a landmark heart study

The Framingham Heart Study—the longest running and best-known study of the causes of heart disease—has also revealed important clues about brain disorders, including stroke, cognitive decline, and dementia. In addition to linking high blood pressure with a higher risk of stroke, the study has confirmed that atrial fibrillation and an enlarged left ventricle contribute to stroke risk. The multigenerational study has also affirmed the importance of exercise and social connections for staving off cognitive decline. More »

Mediterranean diet works by adding up small improvements

Small changes inside the body may add up to a larger cardiovascular risk reduction—up to 25%—in people who eat the Mediterranean-style diet versus those who do not. One of the biggest changes thought to reduce overall risk in heart and blood vessel disease is a drop in chronic inflammation, a known risk factor for heart disease. (Locked) More »

What is labile hypertension?

Labile hypertension is a condition marked by blood pressure readings that fluctuate far more than normal. It has many possible causes, including too much caffeine, anxiety, and stress, or the use of pain relievers known as NSAIDs. More »

Why worry about your waistline?

Growing numbers of Americans now have abdominal obesity (as measured by a large waist size), which puts them at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Abdominal fat (also known as visceral fat) pads the organs and is more likely to lead to unfavorable changes in blood sugar and other heart risk factors. Some people are predisposed to larger midsections because of their sex, genes, or ethnicity. But a reduced-carbohydrate diet that avoids added sugar, white flour, and starchy foods may help; so can intermittent fasting and regular exercise. More »

Prescription-strength omega-3 fatty acids to prevent heart disease?

A prescription drug called icosapent ethyl (Vascepa) that contains large doses of EPA (an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil) lowers high blood levels of triglycerides. For some people, it also may reduce heart attacks, strokes, and related events. Triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood, have been getting more attention of late for their role in heart disease. But the heart-protecting benefits of icosapent ethyl may also arise from calming inflammation, making blood less likely to clot, and preventing dangerous heart rhythms. (Locked) More »