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

Did you get your flu shot yet?

An annual flu vaccine is especially important for people who have or are at risk for heart disease. Growing evidence links influenza infections with both heart attack and heart failure. Having a serious infection can put stress on the heart, increasing its need for oxygen. Coughing and congestion can make breathing more difficult. Like all infections, influenza kicks the immune system into gear. The resulting outpouring of inflammatory molecules may make blood more likely to form clots and irritate the cells lining blood vessels,  changes that could boost the risk of a heart attack. (Locked) More »

High blood pressure at the doctors office but not at home?

About one in five people has white-coat hypertension, which refers to blood pressure that is high in the doctor’s office but normal at home. Doctors don’t typically treat this condition with medication. But white-coat hypertension may increase the risk of heart attacks, stroke, and death from heart disease if left untreated. People who take blood pressure medications and still experience a blood pressure rise at the doctor’s office (what’s known as white-coat effect) do not appear to face higher risk of heart disease. Lifestyle changes that can help all people with high blood pressure include losing weight, exercising regularly, limiting salt, and quitting smoking. A practice known as the relaxation response may be especially useful for people with white-coat hypertension. More »

The best beverages for your heart

Sugary beverages such as sodas and lemonade are closely linked to a higher risk of weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Even healthy-sounding beverages such as 100% fruit juice and vitamin water contain as much sugar as regular sodas. The liquid sugars (which contain glucose and fructose) in juice and soda are absorbed and digested quickly. Excess glucose can cause insulin levels to spike, which can raise the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Those risks also rise when people consume too much fructose, which can overload the liver. Excess fructose is converted to fat and dumped into the bloodstream. Coffee, tea, and flavored (unsweetened) water are healthier beverage choices. (Locked) More »

When very high cholesterol runs in the family

Familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) is an inherited condition that leads to very high levels of harmful LDL cholesterol. Although FH is as common as type 1 diabetes and cystic fibrosis, many people have never heard of it. Because it’s a leading cause of premature heart attacks, ongoing efforts seek better ways to identify FH. Genetic testing isn’t always necessary, because high LDL cholesterol is an excellent indicator of heart disease risk. In children, an LDL cholesterol level of 160 mg/dL or higher suggests FH; in adults, an LDL of 190 mg/dL or higher raises suspicion. (Locked) More »

How much sleep do we really need?

Some people need less sleep while others need more, but in general trying to get the recommended amount (seven to nine hours a night for adults, seven to eight for seniors) is probably a prudent choice. (Locked) More »

Poor sense of smell may predict risk of death in older adults

Shorter term studies have suggested a link between loss of smell among older adults and risk of death. A new report confirms that the association between loss of smell and earlier death persists over more than a decade and identifies the leading causes: cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. More »

Smartphone apps for managing heart disease

Smartphone apps that pair with devices that record data (such as a blood pressure cuff, a personal electrocardiogram, or a scale) may help doctors fine-tune treatments for people with certain cardiovascular conditions. Contrary to popular belief, many people ages 65 and older are comfortable using apps. Apps paired with devices allow people to collect health data at home in a consistent, streamlined manner. The data are then stored electronically in a simple, accessible format (such as a graph) that is easy to retrieve, view, and send to a doctor. (Locked) More »

Take a stand against heart disease

Almost one-quarter of adults still don’t meet the federal guidelines for physical activity, and chronic sitting may be a major reason. New statistics have found that a vast majority of older adults spend at least two hours a day or even longer sitting. This can lead to weight gain, blood clots in the legs, and is associated with an increased risk for a heart attack and stroke. (Locked) More »