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

Different types of echocardiography

Echocardiograms use high-frequency sound waves (ultrasound) to create images of the heart. There are several variations of this common test, including three-dimensional echocardiograms and color Doppler echocardiograms. (Locked) More »

Seed of the month: Chia seeds

Chia seeds are the richest plant sources of omega-3 fatty acid and are also a good source of fiber. The small, black seeds don’t have much flavor, so they can be added to foods such as cereal or yogurt for a stealthy nutrient boost. More »

Afib: Rhythm or rate control

Treatment for atrial fibrillation depends on a person’s symptoms as well as their age and other health conditions. One approach uses medications to slow the heart; another involves controlling the heart’s unstable rhythm. (Locked) More »

Getting into the swing of golf

Golf is a low-impact sport with several features that make it a good exercise for people who have or are at risk for heart disease. Playing 18 holes of golf without riding in a cart involves walking four to five miles, which easily meets the recommended daily step count of 10,000 steps. It also provides a chance to socialize with friends and to spend time in a relaxing natural environment, which may help lower stress. More »

What can at-home genetic tests tell you about heart-related risks?

At-home genetic tests such as 23andMe and Ancestry Health are unlikely to help predict a person’s odds of heart disease. The results reveal only limited information about a person’s risk for abnormally high cholesterol (a condition known as familial hypercholesterolemia) or harmful blood clots (known as hereditary thrombophilia). Most cases of coronary artery disease, the most common form of heart disease, are polygenic, meaning they result from changes in multiple genes. (Locked) More »