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

Cardiology specialists: When you need extra expertise

Seeing a cardiologist is standard practice following a heart attack. But some people—such as those with a family history of early heart disease—may want to consult a cardiologist even if they haven’t experienced a heart-related scare. People who have multiple risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity, also may want to consider an evaluation by a heart disease expert. General cardiologists have broad knowledge about managing atherosclerosis, as well as diagnosing and treating heart rhythm disorders, heart valve problems, and other blood vessel disorders. (Locked) More »

How noise pollution may harm the heart

Long-term exposure to traffic noise may lead to heightened activity in the amygdala, the brain region involved in processing stress, anxiety, and fear. This link may explain why chronic noise appears to raise cardiovascular risk. More »

Keeping tabs on triglycerides

Lowering LDL cholesterol levels is an important way to reduce the risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. But people also should monitor their triglycerides—the most common type of fat in the body. In some cases, medications help lower high levels, but lifestyle changes are the preferred method, such as eating healthier carbohydrates, curbing alcohol, losing weight, and increasing exercise. (Locked) More »

New hope for an inherited form of heart disease

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), the most common form of inherited heart disease, is thought to affect one in 500 people. It can be challenging to diagnose because the symptoms vary widely and are sometimes mistaken for other disorders. Many people with HCM have no symptoms or only mild ones for most of their lives. Others notice breathlessness, fatigue, or chest pain, or they have episodes of fainting or near-fainting (particularly during exertion). The disease is passed from one generation to the next by way of dominant-acting mutations in genes that govern the structure of the heart muscle. (Locked) More »

The bitter truth about added sugar

American adults consume an average of 77 grams (almost 20 teaspoons) of sugar per day. A little extra sugar may seem harmless, but the amounts can add up and, over time, contribute to a variety of health issues, like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Avoiding high-sugar foods by reading labels and cutting out sugar-sweetened beverages are the best ways to lower intake of added sugar. (Locked) More »

Understanding triglycerides

Triglycerides are the most common form of fat both in food and in the bloodstream. Growing evidence suggests that above-normal triglyceride levels can raise the risk of cardiovascular disease. More »

What causes a leaky mitral valve?

The mitral valve controls blood flow between the upper and lower chambers on the left side of the heart. Some people are born with a faulty mitral valve, which can cause blood to leak backward across the valve, a problem known as mitral regurgitation. But most people acquire mitral regurgitation in response to a different heart ailment, such as a heart attack, heart failure, or heart muscle disease. People with a moderate amount of mitral regurgitation should see their physician twice a year and get a yearly echocardiogram, or sooner if they develop symptoms. These include shortness of breath, fatigue, cough, palpitations, and swollen feet or ankles. (Locked) More »