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

Let's go nuts

Nuts contain healthy unsaturated fats, protein, and important nutrients like potassium, and there is ample evidence that eating nuts regularly helps protect against heart disease. Numerous studies have shown that if you put people on nut-filled diets, favorable effects on cholesterol levels, blood pressure readings, and inflammatory factors follow. And in large epidemiologic studies, high nut consumption has been associated with lower rates of heart disease. An analysis of data from the Harvard-based Nurses' Health Study showed that having one serving of nuts a day is associated with a 30% lower risk of heart disease compared with having one serving of red meat a day. (Locked) More »

Premature heart disease

  Coronary artery disease is the biggest cause of heart attacks in younger men, but other causes include defective arteries, clot disorders, and drug abuse.   More »

New view of heart disease in women

A landmark study found that women are susceptible to a different type of heart disease called microvascular dysfunction. It affects both larger and smaller blood vessels, but is not detected by the standard cardiac tests. More »

Gender matters: Heart disease risk in women

We've come a long way since the days when a woman's worry over heart disease centered exclusively on its threat to the men in her life. We now know it's not just a man's problem. Every year, coronary heart disease, the single biggest cause of death in the United States, claims women and men in nearly equal numbers. In a survey conducted by the American Heart Association, about half of the women interviewed knew that heart disease is the leading cause of death in women, yet only 13% said it was their greatest personal health risk. If not heart disease, then what? Other survey data suggest that on a day-to-day basis, women still worry more about getting breast cancer — even though heart disease kills six times as many women every year. Why the disconnect? Breast cancer affects body image, sexuality, and self-esteem in ways that a diagnosis of heart disease does not. Also, heart disease tends to show up at an older age (on average, a woman's first heart attack occurs at age 70), so the threat may not seem all that real to younger women. Most 50-year-old women know women their age who've had breast cancer but none who've had heart disease. More »

When You Visit Your Doctor - After a Heart Attack

Have you had chest pain or pressure since you were discharged from the hospital? How severe is it? How long does it last? Does it stay in your chest or radiate to other parts of your body? Did you have this pain before your heart attack? What brings it on? How frequently do you get it? What were you doing just prior to the chest pain? Do you ever get chest pain or pressure at rest? What relieves the chest pain? If you take nitroglycerin, how many doses do you usually need to take before the pain goes away? How often do you take nitroglycerin? Do you get short of breath when you lie down or exert yourself? Do you awaken in the middle of the night short of breath? Do your ankles swell? Do you ever feel lightheaded? Have you fainted? Do you get rapid or pounding heartbeat for no reason? Do you know what each of the medications you are taking does? Do you know the side effects of each medication? Are you having any side effects? Are you taking an aspirin every day? Are you doing everything you can to modify the risk factors that can worsen your coronary artery disease (cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes are the most important risk factors)? Are you participating in a supervised exercise program? Are you resuming your normal activities? Are you sexually active? Have you returned to work? Have you been feeling depressed since your heart attack? Have you been able to reduce the stress in your life? Have you been fatigued? Heart rate, blood pressure, and weight Pulses in your wrist, groin, and feet Listen over the major arteries in the neck, groin, and feet (for abnormal noises) Look at the veins in the neck to see if there is extra fluid in your body Heart and lungs Ankles and legs (for swelling) Blood tests for glucose, lipid panel (cholesterol levels) and C-reactive protein (CRP) Electrocardiogram Echocardiogram Exercise stress test   More »

When You Visit Your Doctor - Heart Block

Have you been dizzy or lightheaded? Have you fainted? Have you been fatigued? Have you had chest pain? Do you get it with exertion or at rest? How frequently do you get it? How long does it last? What brings it on? What relieves it? Is this a change from your usual pattern? Do you get short of breath when you lie down or exert yourself? Do you awaken in the middle of the night short of breath? Do your ankles swell? Do you get rapid or pounding heartbeats for no reason? What medications are you taking (including over-the-counter medications, herbal remedies, and vitamins)? Do you have any other medical problems? Heart rate, blood pressure, and weight Pulses in the wrist and feet Veins in the neck Heart and lungs Ankles and legs (for swelling) Electrocardiogram Echocardiogram Holter monitor Electrophysiologic testing   More »

When You Visit Your Doctor - Mitral Valve Prolapse

Have you had an echocardiogram? What did it show? Does your mitral valve leak? Do you get chest pain? What brings it on? How long does it last? What relieves it? Do you ever get a rapid or pounding heartbeat (palpitations) for no reason? How long does it last? Do you feel faint or develop chest pain or shortness of breath? Have you ever fainted? Do you get short of breath when you lie down or exert yourself? Have you ever taken any medications for your heart? Did you develop any side effects from these medications? Heart rate, blood pressure, and weight Heart (sometimes while you are standing, squatting, or performing other maneuvers) Lungs Electrocardiogram Echocardiogram Holter monitor or event monitor   More »